Schools are supposed to be sanctuaries. That refrain has been echoing around the country following Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman shot his way into the building and murdered 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.
“I live between the Sandy Hook Elementary School and the house of the shooter, Adam Lanza. I seriously thought I lived in the safest place in America,” Newtown resident Addie Sandler wrote in USA Today. Sandler added that her children had attended Sandy Hook Elementary when they were younger. “The elementary school was a place of learning and laughter.”
For Carolyn Mears, a professor of education at the University of Denver whose son is a Columbine survivor, the fact that the shooting took place at a school – an elementary school, at that – is an attack on our sense of innocence.
“Schools are symbolic to our country, to our society,” she said. “Schools are the future. Schools are a place of hope of betterment.”
Many students across the country may balk at going to their own schools as a result of Friday’s events, predicted Marie Gray, a psychologist that specializes in child and adolescent developmental psychology and traumatic stress.
“It’s almost like everything we teach them goes out the window because of this heinous act,” she said. “How do we emphasis safety to them and let them know they’re going to be safe when something like this happens?”
It’s important to regain that sense of safety now, though, said Robert Klitzman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, adding children should be told that they are free from harm now and this is a “freak event.”
Although violence is rare, dozens of people are killed in schools each year. Other schools and their surrounding communities have been hit hard or destroyed by natural disasters.
After the shooting at Columbine, where 13 individuals were shot and killed and another 24 were injured, Mears set about learning what schools could do following such tragedies. In her book, Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma, she urges schools to think about the unthinkable and have plans in place, from what the chain of command will look like to how to teach children who have been traumatized.
Some students from Sandy Hook may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may regress, have reoccurring nightmares, or withdraw, experts said.
The entire community will need to work together to “build a new normal,” Mears said. Some students may never be able to step foot in the school again, but those who can return should do so when they are ready with parent and teacher support. “That can actually be very helpful,” she said, recalling her own experience.
Officials have not said if the school will reopen for classes; for now Sandy Hook students will be sent to a school in the nearby town of Monroe.
A pair of Newtown High School alumni have started a movement to knock down Sandy Hook and build a new school in a new location, underscoring the deep connection between students and their schools. “We cannot send the survivors to walk the halls of the school that were once covered in blood from their fallen classmates and faculty,” they wrote on Newtown’s Patch.com site. “Rebuilding Sandy Hook Elementary would give the survivors a new place to call home.”
But Gray suggested that doing so might reinforce victimhood and that returning to the scene may help some regain a sense of power. “The building is just a building,” she said. “The building didn’t do anything bad.”