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In the Suburbs: We must never forget the price of Newtown

December 17, 2016 GMT

I was subbing at Fairfield Warde High School on Dec. 14, 2012, when the Newtown massacre occurred. I was in the Townsend House lounge, trying to compose myself during a break from the science class I was covering after learning my mom had died in Chicago.

The first announcements of the shooting began somewhere around noon, and details were sketchy. A few of us had gathered around the secretary’s desk, and we learned the shooting had taken place at a Newtown elementary school and the school had been evacuated, but it was uncertain if there were victims and how many.

By the time my break was ending, we had heard the worst — there were adults and children who had been killed by the shooter, Adam Lanza, who had taken his own life. Lanza lived in Newtown with his mom, and one inaccurate rumor was that the mom worked at the school, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Lanza was carrying out a personal vendetta against his mother. In fact, none of that was true, and the shooter had murdered his mother at home before he ever came to the school with a gun she had purchased for him.

Lanza entered Sandy Hook with no alarms alerting the staff, dressed in combat gear and carrying high-powered, rapid-fire military-type weapons. Within five minutes, he had murdered six adults, including the school principal, a school psychologist, a special-education paraprofessional, a behavior therapist and first-grade teachers, along with the most tragic victims of all — 20 6 and 7-year-olds. It was the worst elementary school mass shooting in U.S. history.

By the time first responders arrived, Lanza had killed himself, and responders found carnage beyond description. Some responders are still haunted by that day.

For those of us in the Townsend House office, there was a collective aura of grief and despair and feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. What if this had been another Columbine High School? What if it had happened, God forbid, at Warde? Coincidentally, my older daughter was subbing at the school that day as well, and I just needed to find her.

The Newtown tragedy had unnerved me even more after the phone call about my mom, and I had to tell my daughter about her grandmother and just give her a hug. Thankfully, I did locate her.

Over the past four years since those Dec. 14 events, significant progress has been made on a lot of fronts. Probably all schools — or mostly all of them — have alarm access systems for safe entry. According to an editorial that day in the Connecticut Post, “And yes there has been good. Grassroots groups and foundations formed with various missions — to raise awareness about mental health issues, to pursue gun safety legislation, to improve social-emotional learning, to ‘choose love’ and more.”

But there have been disappointments. “Gun safety reform has been blocked in Congress,” the editorial continued, “despite widespread public support for universal background checks; efforts are now focused on state-by-state change.”

The one dramatic effort I hope will be successful over the long haul in identifying future Adam Lanzas and giving them help before disasters like this was the signing this week of the bipartisan Mental Health Reform Act, “co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, that will improve coordination and resources for mental health.”

In Newtown, some 85 family members of gun violence victims across 20 states attended the Dec. 14 memorial. Awareness of this tragedy is so high that other states held memorials or vigils as well.

A new Sandy Hook Elementary School stands in a different place on the grounds where the original school was, and the look and decor of the school bear little or no resemblance to the original.

But for 26 families, torn apart by the vicious massacre of staff members and angelic children — whose only mistake was being in the wrong place on a crisp, December morning — moving on is hard, if not nearly impossible. According to the Post editorial, “Even today, the senselessness of the shootings cannot be comprehended. Grief ripples through the families, friends, neighbors, the town, nearby communities, the state, the country.”

I can’t help but recall some 50 people asking my wife and me at my mom’s funeral the following week whether this Newtown place was anywhere near our house. Most had heard something about the tragedy.

Four years later, I still remember where I was that day, and still become choked up about the horrible waste of valuable lives. We must never forget the impact of this event on so many lives.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.