NEWTOWN, Conn. – Newtown returned its students to their classrooms Tuesday for the first time since last week’s massacre and faced the agonizing task of laying others to rest, as this grieving town wrestled with the same issues gripping the country: violence, gun control and finding a way forward.
Funerals were held for two more of the tiny fallen, a 6-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, the latest in a long, almost unbearable procession of grief. A total of 26 people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S history. The gunman also killed his mother in her home, before committing suicide.
The resumption of classes at all of Newtown’s schools except Sandy Hook brought a return of familiar routines, something students seemed to welcome as they arrived aboard buses festooned with large green-and-white ribbons – the colors of the stricken elementary school.
“We’re going to be able to comfort each other and try and help each other get through this, because that’s the only way we’re going to do it,” said 17-year-old P.J. Hickey, a senior at Newtown High School. “Nobody can do this alone.”
Still, he noted: “There’s going to be no joy in school. It really doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore.”
At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, back-to-back funerals were held for first-graders James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos, the first of eight to be held in the coming days at the church.
As mourners gathered outside, a motorcade led by police motorcycles arrived for the funeral of little James, who especially loved recess and math, and who was described by his family as a “numbers guy” who couldn’t wait until he was old enough to order a foot-long Subway sandwich.
Traffic in front of the church slowed to a crawl as police directed vehicles into the church parking lot. At one point, a school bus carrying elementary students got stuck in traffic, and the children, pressing their faces into the windows, sadly watched as the mourners assembled.
Inside the church, James’ mother stood and remembered her son.
“It was very somber, it was very sad, it was very moving,” said Clare Savarese, who taught the boy in preschool and recalled him as “a lovely little boy. A sweet little angel.”
The service had not yet concluded when mourners began arriving for the funeral of Jessica, who loved horses and was counting the years until she turned 10, when her family had promised her a horse of her own. For Christmas, she had asked Santa for new cowgirl boots and hat.
“We are devastated, and our hearts are with the other families who are grieving as we are,” her parents, Rich and Krista Rekos, said in a statement.
Tensions in the shattered community ran high as the grief of parents and townspeople collided with the crush of media reporting on the shootings and the funerals.
Police walked children to parents waiting in cars to protect them from the cameras. Many parents yelled at reporters to leave their children and the town alone.
“Go away!” a man in a tow truck painted with an American flag screamed at media across from Hawley Elementary School.
At Newtown High School, students in sweat shirts and jackets, many wearing headphones, had mixed reactions. Some waved at or snapped photos of the assembled media horde, while others appeared visibly shaken.
Students said they didn’t get much work done Tuesday and spent much of the day talking about the terrible events of last Friday, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, clad all in black, broke into Sandy Hook Elementary and opened fire on students and staff.
“It’s definitely better than just sitting at home watching the news,” said sophomore Tate Schwab. “It really hasn’t sunk in yet. It feels to me like it hasn’t happened.”
As for concerns about safety, some students were defiant.
“This is where I feel the most at home,” said Hickey. “I feel safer here than anywhere else in the world.”
Still, some parents were apprehensive.
Priscilla and Randy Bock, arriving with their 15-year-old special needs son, James, expressed misgivings. “I was not sure we wanted him going,” Priscilla Bock said. “I’m a mom. I’m anxious.”
“Is there ever a right day? I mean, you just do it, you know, just get them back to school,” said Peter Muckell as he brought his 8-year-old daughter Shannon, a third-grader, to Hawley Elementary.
At one Newtown school, students found some comfort from Ronan, an Australian shepherd therapy dog from Good Dog Foundation in New York.
Owner Lucian Lipinsky took the dog to a fifth-grade science and math class where students were having difficulty coping with the tragedy. Most started smiling immediately.
Lipinsky told the students they could whisper their secrets into Ronan’s ear. “It’s pretty amazing how a lot of kids will just go whisper in his ear and tell them their secret and of course he doesn’t tell anyone,” Lipinsky said. “He’s a very good dog.”
Authorities say the horrific events of Friday began when Lanza shot his mother, Nancy, at their home, then took her car and some of her guns to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary, where he broke in and opened fire, killing 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself.
A Connecticut official said the mother, a gun enthusiast who practiced at shooting ranges, was found dead in her pajamas in bed, shot four times in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
As investigators worked to figure out what drove him to lash out with such fury – and why he singled out the school – federal agents said that he had fired guns at shooting ranges over the past several years, though there was no evidence he had done so recently.
Debora Seifert, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said both Lanza and his mother fired at shooting ranges, sometimes visiting them together.
“We do not have any indication at this time that the shooter engaged in shooting activities in the past six months,” Seifert said.
Investigators have found no letters or diaries that could explain the attack.
Lanza is believed to have used a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle, a civilian version of the military’s M-16. It is similar to the weapon used in a recent shopping mall shooting in Oregon and other deadly attacks around the U.S. Versions of the AR-15 were outlawed in this country under the 1994 assault weapons ban, but the law expired in 2004.
Private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management announced Tuesday it plans to sell its stake in Freedom Group, maker of the Bushmaster rifle, following the school shootings.
Cerberus said in a statement that it was deeply saddened by Friday’s events, and that it will hire a financial adviser to help with the process of selling its Freedom Group interests.
In Pittsburgh, Dick’s Sporting Goods said it is suspending sales of modern rifles nationwide because of the shooting. The company also said it’s removing all guns from display at its store closest to Newtown.
Meanwhile, the outlines of a national debate on gun control began to take shape. At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said curbing gun violence is a complex problem that will require a “comprehensive solution.”
Carney did not offer specific proposals or a timeline. He said President Barack Obama will meet with law enforcement officials and mental health professionals in coming weeks.
Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s junior U.S. senator and a former state attorney general, joined the debate, saying the type of assault rifle used in the killings should be banned. He said restrictions on assault weapons are sensible regulations that will not infringe on the constitutional right to own guns.