A year after school shooting, Newtown to mark day with 'acts of kindness'

Residents of Newtown, Conn., hope to avoid the intense media scrutiny that came a year ago Saturday, after the school shooting that shocked the world. Their focus will be on reflection, healing, and kindness.

Michelle MLoughlin/Reuters
In Monroe, Conn., a flag displaying six large and 20 small stars flies Dec. 13 in remembrance of the victims of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., alongside the US and IBEW flags. Six adults and 20 children died in the attack, which occurred a year ago as of Saturday.

The political, civic, and religious leaders of Newtown, Conn., decided back in October that there will be no townwide observance this Saturday to mark the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which thrust the small New England town into the world spotlight last Dec. 14.

It is not an attempt to wish the anniversary away but rather an acknowledgment that residents affected by the tragedy walk the path of grief and healing in their own ways, and many of them wish to do so out of the public eye.

Smaller-scale memorials and opportunities for collective reflection will abound in Newtown on Saturday. And what residents are coming together around most is a theme: making the world a better place through acts of kindness.

“Maybe this tragedy can serve as a reminder for all families to set aside a few minutes to talk together about the importance of compassionate acts – that those acts become the glue that binds us together in our humanity,” Newtown’s leader, First Selectman Pat Llodra, wrote in a statement on behalf of a wide array of community groups. “There is great power in a community supporting and believing the notion that each of us can and do make a difference,” her statement continued.

Newtown’s approach to the anniversary, including pleas for the media to stay out of town, “reflects that time and again, the community has focused on what it means to heal, not what it means to create a spectacle,” says Richard Harwood, founder and president of Harwood Institute for Public Innovation in Bethesda, Md.

As a community that could easily have split apart after such a tragedy, Newton instead has insisted on unity, says Mr. Harwood, who helped a task force work through difficult decisions to raze Sandy Hook Elementary and lay plans to build a new school. Newtown shows what it means "to come together and get things done," he adds.

The town’s houses of worship are marking the anniversary with a range of activities Saturday, many of them closed to the media.

At St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church on Saturday morning, the Sandy Hook students and staff who died will be memorialized by the tolling of the Bells of Consolation, created after the Newtown shootings and each ranging from 550 to 3,500 pounds. 

 In the chapel of the Trinity Episcopal Church, a prayer vigil will stretch from 8 p.m. Saturday until 8 a.m. Sunday.

The Al Hedaya Islamic Center is offering a Saturday afternoon prayer service, open to the public, followed by a time for reflection – with henna and aromatic teas, as well as arts and crafts for children.

After a memorial prayer service at Christ the King Lutheran Church on Saturday, “comfort dogs” will be on hand for anyone who wants to visit with them. The church adopted a comfort dog after members saw how helpful the animals were in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. 

At a child-friendly space set up by Save the Children last December, these special dogs offered “a tremendous aura of calming and comfort … and from that point on they’ve really become a staple throughout the town,” says Ken Murdoch, a longtime Newtown resident and Save the Children's vice president of information technology and building operations. He is also a board member of Newtown Kindness, a group formed to honor one of the young victims by spreading acts of kindness, including making comfort dogs more available to children who are struggling in school.

Congregation Adath Israel already marked the anniversary, which came a week ago Wednesday on the Hebrew Calendar. Last Saturday, the first Sabbath following that anniversary date, Rabbi Shaul Praver led a Yizkor service, a type of remembrance. It included original writings by survivors and first responders (including Rabbi Praver, who had gathered with families in the firehouse near the school on the day of the shootings). Twenty-seven names were called out during the service. That included the mother of shooter Adam Lanza, a decision Praver acknowledges was somewhat controversial.

Lanza killed his mother at the home they shared before his attack on Sandy Hook Elementary and his own self-inflicted death.

Last Friday, Praver conducted a youth service on the theme of lovingkindness as “the total solution…. If everybody practiced that lovingkindness we wouldn’t have violence in our society,” he said in a phone interview with the Monitor. He also opened it up for the kids to “explore tangible ways they can act on that spiritual idea, whether it’s giving someone a candy bar or helping with math homework.”

On Dec. 14, Congregation Adath Israel won’t have a special service, but the rabbi will play some quiet music, and he’ll be available, along with mental health professionals, for anyone who wants to come in to talk, pray, write, or bring their children by to play quiet games.

Interim schools superintendent John Reed will be on hand in a local school for any staff members who may want to come in on Dec. 14. The staff have largely kept their acts of “heroism” to themselves, he said in an interview with the Newtown Bee, but have shown “remarkable fortitude and courage.”

Some Newtown residents have decided a trip out of town is the best way to avoid painful memories – and the anticipated new round of probing media, despite pleas by town leaders for media to stay away. 

Town leaders say they are grateful for the generosity shown since last December – so many gifts have poured in that they have asked people to now give to their own local charities instead. The media played a role in sparking that generosity, but the fact that the town was bursting at the seams with international reporters last December made it difficult for grieving families, Ms. Llodra and others have said.

In recent weeks, news media have been back in town to cover the release of a report on the shootings, the tapes of calls to 911 from the school, and the approaching anniversary.

“There’s been an accelerated anxiety in the community about how are we going to survive another massive influx of media on the date of the anniversary,” Llodra said in a Dec. 1 interview on Hartford’s WSFB-TV. “We truly need this time as a community to reflect, to be personal, to be with each other, to continue on that grief journey, without the … concern about having media observe us on that journey.”

For her part, Llodra plans to be visible in Sandy Hook on Saturday, shopping and dining and encouraging people to support the village’s businesses.

Because of the congested traffic last December, Sandy Hook businesses qualified for a $500,000 economic assistance grant from the state, and some local businesses approached by media this time around have said they will not allow news trucks to park on their properties, the Newtown Patch reports.

A number of media outlets, including WSFB, CNN, and USA Today, have announced they intend to honor the town’s wishes by staying out of Newtown on Dec. 14.

Even journalists trying to be sensitive can unwittingly reopen emotional wounds. On the last night of Hanukkah, Dec. 4, a reporter with a long lens camera was taking pictures at a candle-lighting event, Rabbi Praver says, and the children in one family became very upset. Last year, this same event, a joyous one, took place on Dec. 13, and the next day those children, who did not attend Sandy Hook school, had been in lockdown in their own schools. Then they “went through the trauma of the world descending on the town,” Praver says.

“Somehow being in this place again, and the reporter being there, the kids had a panic attack,” he says.

For many families and friends who lost loved ones, working for positive change is an ongoing tribute – and that’s what they hope people around the world will focus on if they feel the need to mark the anniversary. One set of parents, both scientists, are hoping brain science can improve the understanding and prevention of violent behavior. One mother created a video to share her family’s story of learning to understand that, as the video is titled, “Evil Did Not Win.”

Others are supporting arts in education, horseback riding for disadvantaged children, improvements in mental health, stricter gun control, and civic dialogue to end violence.

“That horrible day, it was a year ago…. We’re not there anymore,” Rabbi Praver says. “We’ve moved on, and this is how people cope with such deep losses like this, by throwing themselves into something that they believe in – and they do it in sacred tribute and memory of their loved one.”

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