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)

Many children continue to suffer trauma-related aftershocks. For some, it is chronic night terrors and seemingly perpetual anxiety. For others, visiting an unfamiliar place might prompt blunt questions including, "Where would I hide if something happened here?"


Almost everyone involved with the school is trying to make life easier. Counselors are available. Therapy dogs have tried to ease the pain.

Keeping, for his part, asked to be assigned to the elementary school because he lives in Sandy Hook. His children attended Sandy Hook Elementary School and are older now.

Keeping is not among the police officers and state troopers who charged into Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14 to rescue those inside. Keeping serves as security for the school, but he also has a role in helping children and parents.

"I just wanted to have a way to make these kids smile, and it wasn't easy in the beginning," Keeping said. "But the ducks have helped a lot. ... Things get better week by week."

Sandy Hook volunteer firefighter Peter Barresi, who responded to the scene on Dec. 14, has a son, Wyatt, in first grade at the school.

"I know two people who said their kids only went back to school because of the ducks," Barresi said.

The ducks -- which have their own Facebook page, The Ducks of Sandy Hook Elementary -- have become celebrities, being photographed with the famous, as well as world travelers, as the community embraced them. Facebook photos show them all over the world, including Buckingham Palace, on the deck of cruise ships, with President Barack Obama, next to the Stanley Cup and posed with two Canadian Mounties.

Although any Connecticut school would be wary of a distraction like the ducks, it's a needed diversion for people in Newtown, said Saunders, the child psychologist.

"I really love the fact that this has become such a communitywide thing, that it gives people a sense of connection as well," Saunders said. "It's a shared feeling of connection: We are not alone."

"That people are able to latch onto that symbolism of growth and change is really healthy and adaptive," Saunders said.

Dr. Adam Zolotor, a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of North Carolina, said people should not "over-interpret the comfort that people might find in this."

"It's pretty clear that people who are not badly traumatized, who are looking for a way of community coming together, might find some solace in this kind of a symbolic gesture. But I think that kids that had first- or second-hand experience with the shootings at Sandy Hook are probably going to need a lot more," said Zolotor, a physician who researches child trauma from a public health standpoint.

The pace of growth and change depends on the day, who is talking and how their children are coping, especially with some of the stories they hear from other students, in school or on the long bus rides to and from the out-of-town school.

Parents and others are seeing adjustment. Students are less likely to jump at strange sounds than they were in January, when even the sound of a chair moving on the second floor of the new school would frighten those on the first floor.

"I think that [the students] are doing as expected," said Janet Robinson, who was Newtown's superintendent until May 3. She took a job in Stratford, an arrangement made before Dec. 14. "Everybody gets through things on their [own] time frame."

The school and town have had assistance dealing with trauma from mental-health experts at state agencies, at least one psychologist at Yale University, counselors at the Clifford Beers clinic in New Haven and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The school had as many as 11 counselors at one point, Robinson said.

"I've never been in a tragedy before," Robinson said. "So, I don't know what to expect. I've just been taking my cues from the responses I see of the kids and adults around me and advice of mental-health experts. That's all I know. My understanding is that when somebody's safety has been shattered in this manner, where school is probably the safest place you can be on Earth, it takes people awhile to recapture their sense of safety."

Newtown's school-facility staff, town workers and volunteers worked quickly over the winter break to prepare Chalk Hill, a middle school, for smaller children. Platforms were built on top of bathroom floors to make toilets and sinks accessible to the more than 500 Sandy Hook students in kindergarten through fourth grade.