NEWTOWN, Conn. – They would have been 16 or 17 this year. High school juniors.
The children killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012 should have spent this year thinking about college, taking their SATs and getting their driver’s licenses. Maybe attending their first prom.
Instead, the families of the 20 students and six educators slain in the mass shooting will mark a decade without them Wednesday.
December is a difficult month for many in Newtown, the Connecticut suburb where holiday season joy is tempered by heartbreak around the anniversary of the nation’s worst grade school shooting.
For former Sandy Hook students who survived the massacre, guilt and anxiety can intensify. For the parents, it can mean renewed grief, even as they continue to fight on their lost children's behalf.
In February, Sandy Hook families reached a $73 million settlement with the gunmaker Remington, which made the shooter's rifle. Juries in Connecticut and Texas ordered the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $1.4 billion for promoting lies that the massacre was a hoax.
In mid-November, a memorial to the 26 victims opened near the new elementary school built to replace the one torn down after the shooting.
Ten years on, some victims’ relatives and survivors aren’t without hope for a brighter future.
ACTIVISM IN TRAGEDY'S AFTERMATH
After the massacre, Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden were among many victims' relatives who turned to activism. They helped form Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit group that works to prevent suicides and mass shootings.
Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan, and Barden, who lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, both find it difficult to believe their children have been gone for a decade.
“For me, Dylan is still this 6-year-old boy, forever frozen in time,” Hockley said. “This journey that we’ve been on the last 10 years, it doesn’t feel like a decade and it doesn’t feel like 10 years since I last held my son, either.”
A decade hasn't diminished the disbelief Barden and his wife feel over Daniel's death.
“Jackie and I still have moments where we just kind of look at each other, still wrapping our heads around the fact that our little 7-year-old boy was shot to death in his first grade classroom,” he said.
“I can’t help but wonder what he’d be like now at 17,” he said, repeating the number 17. "I just think he would be still a more mature version of the beautiful, sweet, compassionate, thoughtful, intelligent little boy that he was at 7. And it breaks my heart to think of the wonderful impact he would have had in these last 10 years and what he would have still yet to come, and it’s all been taken away from him.”
Sandy Hook Promise's programs have been taught in more than 23,000 schools to over 18 million children and adults. Key components include education about the warning signs of potential school violence or self-harm and an anonymous tip system to report a classmate at risk for hurting others or themselves.
Hockley and Barden say they believe the educational programs and reporting system have prevented many suicides and stopped some school shootings.
“It’s a tremendous satisfaction and it’s a serious responsibility,” Barden said of the group's work. “And it’s a gift in a way that we have built something that allows us this mechanism with which to honor our children by saving other children and by protecting other families from having to endure this pain.”
GROWING UP A SURVIVOR
Ashley Hubner was in her second grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary when the shooting happened. She and her classmates ran to the cubby area to hide. The school intercom system clicked on. Everyone could hear gunshots, screaming and crying.
When police arrived, she and her classmates didn’t want to open the door. They thought bad guys could be impersonating officers. They screamed “No!” The officers had to convince them they were actually police.
Ashley, now a 17-year-old senior at Newtown High School, developed post-traumatic stress disorder and has struggled with anxiety and depression, like other students who were there that day. Ashley said she always gets more emotional and irritable around the shooting anniversary.
“Even though it’s been 10 years, like this is still a problem that a lot of us still have to handle in our everyday lives and it still affects us greatly," she said.
Adding to the grief is the fact that mass shootings keep happening, she said.
“We've had 10 years to change things and we’ve changed so little, and that’s just disgusting to me," she said.
Ashley said there wasn't much talk among her classmates yet about the anniversary.
“I feel like everyone just tries to pretend like everything is normal and then when it gets to that day, I’m sure people will reach out and I’ll reach out to people.”
Ashley wasn't sure how she might mark the day. All town schools will be closed for staff development. She said she may make her first trip to the new memorial.
She said she has been happy with her senior year at Newtown High, calling it one of the best school years she's had. She is looking forward to going to college.
“I’m really, really excited to leave,” she said. "Just like to get new experiences, grow up and move on with this chapter of my life, you know?”
LIGHT CONQUERING DARKNESS
St. Rose of Lima Church has been a gathering point for the Newtown community since the day of the shooting, when hundreds of people packed the Roman Catholic church and stood outside for a vigil. It has held a special Mass every Dec. 14 since.
Monsignor Robert Weiss still struggles with his own trauma. The church led the funerals for eight slain children. He hasn't slept well ever since and becomes emotional easily. During Mass, he always keeps watch on the entrances, worried about a violent intruder.
“It’s a very difficult time for me having buried eight of those children,” he said of the anniversary. “It just brings back so many memories of true sadness.”
The anniversary Masses are hopeful, Weiss said, with a theme that light conquers darkness.
“The darkness of evil is not going to conquer good and we as a community have to work together to be sure that happens,” Weiss said. “We want to celebrate and remember the children and the families, and how it’s turned this tragedy into so many positive things to assist other people."
2022 ‘TIPPING POINT’ IN GUN SAFETY
After Sandy Hook, there was frustration among many gun violence prevention advocates that nothing was being done to stop such massacres. The failure of a gun control bill in the months after Sandy Hook was another hard loss.
But U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said the shooting gave new energy to the movement, with numerous groups forming to demand action.
“In the 10 years leading up to Sandy Hook, the gun lobby controlled Washington. Anything they wanted they got,” said Murphy.
“After Sandy Hook happened, we started building what I would describe as the modern anti-gun violence movement," he said. “During the next 10 years, there was essentially gridlock. The gun lobby no longer got what they wanted, but unfortunately in Washington we weren’t getting what we wanted either.”
After mass shootings last spring killed 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major federal gun control law in decades. The law expands background checks for younger gun buyers, boosts school mental health programs and promotes “red flag” laws to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous.
“I think this summer marked the tipping point, where finally the gun safety movement has more power than the gun lobby,” Murphy said.
“It’s going to be a hard December for those families, but I hope they know what a difference that they have made in the memory of their children in these 10 years."