Inside Sandy Hook School: Learning To Heal

A school bus passes a welcome sign outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Monroe on the first day back to school. (Reuters)

Sandy Hook parents Dennis and Andrea Stratford said that when their 6-year-old kindergartner, Luke, heard the gunshots, he thought it was "the school breaking." His teacher stepped out of the classroom and was hit by a bullet. She told her students it was red paint.

"He saw his teacher with blood coming out of her foot," Andrea Stratford said. "He said, 'Mommy, I knew. I knew it was blood.' "

The first day back, Andrea Stratford followed her son's bus. The parking lot was packed with the cars of other parents who couldn't bear to be apart from their children so soon after the funerals for the 20 first-graders and six women.

Parents, once inside, were taken to the lecture hall where administrators tried to reassure them. The superintendent spoke. The principal spoke. Then, the parents talked among themselves.

"It was very calm," Andrea Stratford said of the first day.

It isn't always.

Like many, the Stratfords cope with the tragedy hour by hour, day by day.

"We're getting better, I think," Dennis said. "Actually, no one is getting better to tell you the truth. It's a slow move."

He spoke to a school administrator recently and the two assured each other that they were doing well.

"Then we decided to tell each other the truth," Dennis said. His son, however, seems to be coping well.


Many of the darkest stories are shared, quietly and tearfully but not publicly -- there are the surviving children who witnessed the shooting rampage, some who dashed past the killer as they fled the building and one who pretended to be dead beneath her slain classmates.

Other children in classrooms at the front of the building were close enough to hear the killer cursing as he fired his rifle. Parents share stories about startled reactions, sudden sobs, interrupted nights, disturbing questions, fears of death.

One mother says her child is in therapy often during the week, although she is careful not to offer too many details of the difficult days in order to shield her child's identity.

"We are trying to restore [my child's] sense of control. It isn't just about what happened -- which is horrible enough, but going forward it is dealing with the very ugly reality that it could happen anywhere, any time. And the Boston bombing certainly didn't help matters," she said.

The mother said the experience of students who witnessed, or were close to, the shooting is far from those of students in more distant classrooms, students who were escorted out a side door after a knock at the door.

Her child was close enough to hear a teacher begging for her life and the gunman swearing at his victims. After the rampage ended, police barged into her child's classroom with guns drawn, poised to shoot, screaming: "Is he here? Are you alone?" When the door flew open, the children didn't know whether it was the killer or police.

Her child and others were told to keep their eyes closed as they rushed from the school through the hallway near the main office, passing the bodies of their principal and school psychologist.

If you have ever told a child not to peek, you know that many are bound to look, and they did, she said.

Some children said they saw the gunman on the ground and mistook him for a policeman because he was wearing dark clothes. Some recall the trail of blood from one teacher's injuries; others remember the distinct crunch of broken glass underfoot, and the smell of gunpowder that filled the hall, the mother said.