In Newtown, Conn., the day known to the rest of the world as the 10th anniversary of the deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history is simply called 12/14.
It’s a shorthand that allows students to refer to the events of that day—Dec. 14, 2012—without using words like “tragedy,” “death,” or “shooting.” It’s also an uphill attempt to stop the name of the town from being synonymous with tragedy.
This Dec. 14 marks a decade since a gunman, a former student, killed 20 young children and six adults in the town’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. The event set off years of nationwide debates over school safety that are rekindled every time another school is attacked.
For the Newtown community—the surviving students, who are now in high school, and the families most affected by the loss—the event set off lifelong cycles of grief and remembrance. The rituals are both intensely personal and, at times, highly public.
Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose 6-year-old daughter Ana Grace died in the shooting, thinks of those affected by Newtown’s grief as concentric circles of intensity—victims’ families in the middle alongside injured and surviving students and educators; a traumatized community in the next ring; and people who are far less connected on the outermost circle.
“What happens on hallmark dates is that all of these people on the outside start getting activated and wanting to make it a big, big day,” Márquez-Greene said. “For those of us in the center, it is a big, big day every day we can’t set that seat at the table.”
For Newtown families and students, it’s important to separate the memory of the individuals who died from the traumatic way it happened, to acknowledge hard feelings head on, and to recognize that grief takes many forms, she said.
And so in Newtown, the day will be quiet, even as the media coverage gets loud—as it does every year about this time. Schools will be closed for a teacher workday Wednesday, the date of the attack, giving students space to process away from news crews around town. District and school administrators will politely decline inboxes full of requests for interviews, as they do every year.
A growing community of grief
Since the shooting, dozens of communities have joined Newtown in efforts to create new rituals of remembrance.
Such moments of collective grief are a challenge for school leaders, regardless of the type of tragedy.
In Parkland, Fla., students participate in a day of service on the anniversary of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In Littleton, Colo., students who weren’t even born the day of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School attend vigils and services to mark the date on the calendar.
- The Principal Recovery Network, a group of principals who’ve led schools following shootings, created a guide for peers who may one day face a similar crisis. It includes advice on commemorations. Read it here.
- The National Association of School Psychologists has a guide on trauma anniversaries in schools. Read it here.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides resources for school personnel on various forms of student trauma. Read them here.
- The Coalition to Support Grieving Students offers an online training module on memorials and commemoration. Access it here.
Such concerns have become so common that the Principal Recovery Network, a group of school administrators who led schools in the aftermath of shootings, included advice for anniversaries in a guide for peers who may face similar crises in the future.
Their message: The effects of that trauma will reverberate for years, even affecting the future children of survivors.
“I have a new view of ‘long,’” said George Roberts, who was the principal at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, Md., in August 2012 when a student shot and injured another in the cafeteria, just a few months before the Newtown tragedy.
“Long is forever,” he said when the group released its guide earlier this year. “If you are in a building where this occurred, a community where this occurred, recovery is forever.”
Understanding ‘the anniversary effect’
Psychologists say the dates of traumatic events, and the familiar seasonal touchpoints that lead up to them, can lead to an “anniversary effect,” setting off a physical and emotional stress response for those who were present.
In Newtown, those touchpoints might include seasonal decorations; the shooting occurred weeks before Christmas.
School leaders should be aware of these concerns for students who’ve experienced life-changing events, including events that draw less attention than a shooting—like the loss of a family member to COVID-19, said Karen Gross, an education consultant who teaches a course at Rutgers University Graduate School of Social Work about trauma commemorations.
“Trauma anniversaries need to be thought about as opposed to buried,” Gross said. “Trauma never goes away. It can be ameliorated, for sure, but it never goes away. And perhaps its most debilitating feature is that it can keep getting reactivated.”
Schools should prepare teachers for possible classroom discussions that may arise around anniversaries and have counselors and support staff reach out to students who may be affected. They should also consider whether whole-school events will be helpful or hurtful, the National Association of School Psychologists says in a guide on anniversary stress.
Gross advises schools to prepare well in advance of significant dates, considering factors like varying cultural responses to grief, respect for those most immediately affected, and communicating plans so that students and families can choose how to participate.
Sensitivity to the needs of grieving students and families
The needs of students and families should be central to any planning for school commemorations, said Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, was 6 when he died in the Newtown shooting.
Schools should “honor students’ feelings and experiences because, by not allowing them to share how this impacted them, I fear you are compressing their experience in a way that compounds their grief and anxiety,” she said.
Hockley’s surviving son, Jake, now in college, attended a private school in the years following the shooting before later returning to Newtown High School, which has a special counselor who works with siblings of the shooting victims.
At times, Jake has been hesitant to share where he’s from when he introduces himself to new people, not wanting to be immediately identified with the loss, Hockley said. Students need space to process those complex emotions, she added.
Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse died in the shooting, said her surviving son, J.T., struggled when teachers or classmates mentioned the shooting in class without addressing how he was directly affected. Though he had a special plan that allowed him extra time and space to deal with his emotions in the classroom, he needed to know adults weren’t afraid to acknowledge his pain, she said.
“It’s about having the courage to be present with someone in pain so that they know that you care about them,” Lewis said.
The Principal Recovery Network’s guide also stresses the importance of student voice around milestone dates.
Among its advice:
- Students and families may have an aversion to the term “anniversary,” which could be seen as a positive term. Consider using phrases like “the one-year mark” instead.
- Survey students and hold discussions with small groups to determine what commemorations or traditions would be helpful and meaningful to them.
- Consider making commemorative activities optional so that students can safely and quietly disengage if the events spark anxiety or difficult emotions.
Administrators also shouldn’t assume they know how students want to process the day, principals said when they released the guide. For one principal, that meant scrapping plans for a somber remembrance: Students said they would prefer a goofy staff lipsync at lunch time as an emotional release.
Grief and joy can coexist, Márquez-Greene said.
Recognize the complexity in grief—and in those who are grieving
Educators and the public must also remember the differences between trauma, grief, and activism, survivors stressed.
Parkland’s tragedy quickly became synonymous with a youth-led push for gun control that followed. But Patrick Petty, a student and brother of victim Alaina Petty, later told Education Week he opposed such gun restrictions. Conflating memorials with activism can cause some people to feel left out.
In Newtown, some survivors have gone to the White House to push for new gun laws, and others have launched a variety of foundations to remember lost loved ones. Still others have been far more private.
Every December, Márquez-Greene tweets out the name of one the 26 victims for each day leading up to the 14th. She bristles when people talk about the children who died without acknowledging the adults.
Márquez-Greene and her family launched the Ana Grace Project, an organization that provides professional development for teachers about stress, trauma, and student mental health. She frequently shares links to My Sandy Hook Family, a website that links to biographies and related charities for every victim.
It’s important for students and families to determine how they want to remember loved ones, and for educators not to assume the community is a monolith, Márquez-Greene said. That may mean asking permission before using names and images of victims on memorials or taking other considerations to respect their viewpoints.
“The more you are in relationship with people, the better position you’re in to be responsive and respectful,” she said.
Newtown opened a new Sandy Hook school building in 2016, incorporating lots of windows to let in natural light and open hallways so adults can easily see what’s happening inside the building.
Most of the students who attend that school weren’t born the day of its namesake tragedy.
The students who lost classmates on 12/14 are now in high school. The anniversary brings emotions, Hockley said, but so does seeing Dylan’s peers and realizing that they’re now taller than she is. Would Dylan have outgrown her by now, too?
Hockley plans to spend the day of the 10-year mark walking by the ocean, as she does every year.
“I need to realize that something is bigger than my grief,” she said.
Márquez-Greene will see a trauma therapist that day. She thinks often of mothers who lost their children to smaller acts of violence on that day 10 years ago. Those mothers don’t have the same visibility but have experienced the same pain.
She credits teachers with helping her surviving son, Isaiah, laugh again after the tragedy. After a crisis, educators should be mindful of their own stress and emotions, even as they help students recover, Márquez-Greene said.
She recently visited the newly opened permanent memorial of the tragedy—a large, round water feature etched with 26 names—with students of Ana Grace Academy of the Arts, a magnet elementary and middle school in Hartford, Conn., named in honor of her daughter, who loved music.
She made sure members of the media weren’t present.
“I was honored that they would want to bring their kids here, but I also wanted to protect both the educators and the kids,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s have this sacred moment privately.’ ”