Sandy Hook survivors struggle to pick up the pieces

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

NEWTOWN, Conn.--As residents here learned the names Saturday of the 20 children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook School in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, kids and their parents began a long mourning process.

Roxanne Mader, the mother of 7-year old Bianca, a student at Sandy Hook, said two of her daughter's friends are among the dead, as well as her principal, Dawn Hochsprung, whom Bianca loved.

"I cried a lot," Bianca said quietly, after visiting a small memorial of flowers and candles set up across the street from the school. "I miss my principal. She said, keep on working, don't give up."

Hochsprung reportedly tried to stop the shooting, heroically lunging at the gunman before he shot her and continued on his rampage.

Mader said her daughter has not been shielded from Friday's events.

"They told them to keep their eyes closed (when evacuating the building) and she did, but some of the kids didn't and then as they walked they already shared the information with each other, unfortunately," Mader said.

Steven Reps, a parent of a first grader at Sandy Hook who was volunteering in the classroom when the shooting began, said he is still struggling to explain what happened to his daughter. Reps told the class on Friday morning that a wild animal was in the school, after the children began to ask why they had to hide in the classroom for so long, listening to gunfire. "One said, 'Maybe it's a wild animal,' and I said, 'Yeah, I think it's a fox,'" Reps said. On Saturday, he explained to his daughter that a person, not an animal, was responsible for the shooting, and that he was now dead and could no longer hurt anyone. They're still waiting to tell her about her schoolmates who have died. "We're going to let this sink in for a while," he said.

Kathy Murdy, a Pre-K teacher in Newtown, traveled to the media-inundated Treadwell Park on top of a hill in town because she heard officials would be releasing the names of the dead. A reporter showed her the list, and she spotted the name of one of her former students, six-year-old Catherine Hubbard. "These are our babies," Murdy said.

The shooting's effects rippled beyond Newtown Saturday.

Twelve year old Michael Guaman traveled to Newtown from Danbury with his mother to show support for his history teacher, the husband of slain principal Hochsprung. Michael said he's worried his favorite teacher might not come back to school, and is praying for him.

"I'm a little scared and I hope they take more precautions now," Michael's mother Mariana Guaman said. "I pray to God that nothing else bad happens."

The tragedy raises the question of what will happen to the approximately 450 students who attend the K-4 school, and whether the school should ever reopen. Parents assume school will be cancelled next week, but the district has not yet announced that move. After winter break, Reps said students may be divided up and placed in extra spaces, like cafeterias, in nearby schools, with each class kept together.

"They've known each other since kindergarten," Mader said of her daughter's class, and said it's "essential" that they stay together.

Jeannie Pasacreta, a therapist in Newtown who is helping with the counseling of victims' families, said that she's been "inundated with calls" from parents who are worried about sending their kids backs to the school.

"One mom is going to send her kid to another school," Pasacreta said. "There's a lot of concern about going back to the scene of the trauma."

She's also heard from parents who want to move out of the town altogether. Pasacreta's cousin, whose two children were absent from Sandy Hook on Friday on a family trip, hasn't come back to Newtown yet because she doesn't want to face the scene.

On Saturday, Connecticut police announced that the gunman, Adam Lanza, was not buzzed into the school by employees as previously reported but rather forced his way inside.

"I don't think anyone should go back there," said Joel Faxon, a Newtown resident. His seventh-grade son, Christopher, who attends middle school in Newtown, said it should become a memorial. "It should have all the names listed: the kids and teachers who lost their lives," he said.

But Mader said the fear of "lightning striking twice" would exist no matter where the kids go to school. "I'm going to have to get over my fear that you put your child on the school bus and they might not get off one day," Mader said, clutching her seven-year-old.