Many of the children who escaped last month's massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school got their first glimpse of their new school on Wednesday afternoon, welcomed to a building that has been decked out as a "Winter Wonderland" with the help of thousands of kids from around the world .
More than 400 Sandy Hook Elementary School students in kindergarten through grade 4 will return to classes on Thursday for the first time since the Dec. 14 attack. On Wednesday afternoon those children and parents who hadn't yet visited the school were invited to walk through their new location, in neighboring Monroe.
The former Chalk Hill Middle School has been renamed Sandy Hook Elementary School and has been transformed into a "cheerful, nurturing" environment, Newtown School Superintendent Janet Robinson said at a press conference held by Newtown and Monroe officials at a town park near the school.
Officials have gone to great lengths to help the returning students recover from the nightmarish memory of the attack by Adam Lanza, which left 20 of their schoolmates, all first graders, and six staff members dead in the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
"This does not look like the other elementary school," Robinson said emphatically.
When the students return, they will find all of the belongings they left behind when teachers and police evacuated them from Sandy Hook nearly three weeks ago. They will also find the classrooms and hallways decorated with paper snowflakes made by other students from across the globe.
"There are snowflakes from around the world there. There are many snowflakes, and they are beautiful," Robinson said.
So many, in fact, that organizers have asked that no more be submitted.
"At this time, we have enough beautiful snowflakes to blanket the community of Newtown," the Connecticut PTSA said in a message to prospective decoration contributors.
Attack motive still unknown
Meanwhile, no new details have emerged in recent days to explain why the 20-year-old Lanza, armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, two other firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, targeted the grade schoolers and their teachers.
Described by family friends as having Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at their home about five miles from the school before driving to Sandy Hook and embarking on the massacre, police said. He then took his own life as police were arriving at the school, which had an enrollment of 456 students ages 5 to 10 before the attack.
Police have offered no firm motive for the attack, and state police investigators have said it could be months before they are in a position to offer a report on it.
The massacre in Newtown, a rural New England town of 27,000 residents about 70 miles northeast of New York City, stunned the nation, prompting President Barack Obama to call it the worst day of his presidency and reigniting an extensive debate on gun control. In response to the attack, the National Rifle Association called for armed guards to patrol every public school in the country.
Armed officers from the Monroe Police Department will be on hand when the pupils arrive on Thursday morning around 9 a.m. at their new school, about 7 miles south of Sandy Hook, which remains an active crime scene and is closed to anyone but police.
The new Sandy Hook school has also been equipped with a new security system, although officials declined to offer details.
"I think right now we have to make this the safest school in America," Monroe Police Lieutenant Keith White said.
A comparable system will also be installed in each of Newtown's other schools shortly, Robinson said in an email to district parents.
"As we enter 2013, we begin the year knowing that we are forever changed," Robinson wrote. "We have an altered sense of security and will continue to grieve for the senseless loss of such precious little ones and their teachers, but we will join together in a new appreciation of what we have and will make something positive emerge from this."
Students will also be introduced to a new principal, Donna Page, because Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung was among the six adults killed in Lanza's attack. Page is a former administrator in Newtown schools who has agreed to serve as interim principal while a permanent successor is sought.
(Writing by Dan Burns; Editing by M.D. Golan and Steve Orlofsky)