5-year anniversary of Sandy Hook shooting

When just saying ‘I’m from Newtown’ can be a cross to bear

Suzanne Davenport still wears a memorial bracelet and has a green ribbon with a “Be Kind” magnet on her car to honour the 26 children and educators killed at the local elementary school. A resident of Newtown’s Sandy Hook section, she knew some of the victims, and she knows survivors.

But like many of her neighbours, Davenport often avoids telling strangers she is from Newtown.

“I was recently at a wedding shower, and a woman saw my bracelet and said, ‘Oh, you’re from Sandy Hook?” Davenport said. “And she started in. I said, ‘This is a shower, let’s just let it be a happy occasion.’ She started in again and I had to say, ‘I really don’t think this is the time or the place to be discussing this.’”

Five years into the town’s recovery, residents have adopted various strategies to deal with being from a place whose name has become synonymous with horrifying tragedy. A young man gunned down 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012.

When they travel into the world beyond the otherwise bucolic bedroom community of 28,000 people, some Newtown residents keep their roots to themselves to avoid debates over gun control and mental health. Others have found themselves dealing with awkward silences, or accepting condolences on behalf of an entire town.

It can be just as difficult to get no reaction when telling people they are from Newtown, said Eileen Byrnes, a yoga instructor who has lived in town for 30 years.

“I want to say to them, ‘Did you forget? Do you not remember what happened? How can you not know that this happened?” she said. “So, when you are outside of Newtown, it’s a very interesting dance of how to react or how not to react.”

It’s a familiar burden to people from other communities that have become known to the world through mass shootings, including at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, and more recently in San Bernardino, California, and Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Jane Hammond, who was superintendent of schools for Jefferson County, Colorado, at the time of the 1999 shooting at Columbine, said the connection to the massacre became inescapable for the entire district.

“We had 144 schools in our district, and people decided the name of the district was Columbine,” she said.

“I don’t think the pain goes away. You learn to live with it,” Hammond said. “But anniversaries are hard. The only tears I shed at the time were at the children’s funerals and a staff member’s funeral. On the fifth anniversary, I sobbed.”

At Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 people in April 2007, the tragedy will always be identified with the university — but so will the way the school responded, spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

“I think people saw the true character of Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando; more recently Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs,” he said. “It’s what people see in that time that defines you. People saw our community coming together and standing together.”

Pat Llodra, who led Newtown through the tragedy as the head of its governing board, said most people she meets just want to express how deeply they were touched, and she gladly accepts the grace of the outside world.

But, she said, there is a delicate balance between honouring the past and being defined by it. The town has always been a safe place for families, with good schools, she said.

“This is something that happened to us; we didn’t cause it,” said Llodra, who recently retired. “It’s part of our history, but it is not who we are.”

The tragedy is still present for residents in different ways, said Mary Ann Jacob, who was a library clerk in the school the day of the shooting and hid students in a supply closet.

“Some days it sits quietly by your side, and you acknowledge it and know it’s there and move on with your day,” she said. “Other days it’s a really hard, difficult burden to bear.”

Robin Fitzgerald once took a group of older Newtown kids to Michigan to compete in an international problem-solving competition. The reaction to her team — with coaches and parents constantly trying to acknowledge the Sandy Hook shooting — became a problem.

“Our kids just wanted to go and be just who they were,” she said. “We felt like we had to get between our kids and people who were legitimately just trying to give them love. They would burst into tears, and our kids had no idea what to do, what to say.”

Some improvements have come from the town’s trauma, Jacob said. Neighbors have gotten to know one another, and many have become involved in charities or community projects.

It’s a lesson, she said, the outside world can learn from Newtown.

“Stop telling me how bad you feel, and do something,” said Jacob, who became the chair of the town’s legislative council in 2013. “Make a difference.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation load lobster traps on the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., after launching its own self-regulated fishery on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. When Jaime Battiste was in his early 20s, cable news channels were full of images of Mi’kmaq fishermen in New Brunswick battling federal fisheries officers over seized lobster traps. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)
Nisga’a Lisims Government calls on Prime Minister to act in N.S. fisheries dispute

NLG President: “We are shocked by what’s happening in Nova Scotia”

A nurse prepares a flu shot. The public vaccine for the 2020-2021 flu season is now in pharmacies in Terrace. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
Private flu vaccines scarce at Terrace pharmacies

Public flu vaccines still available for those with greatest need

“We have to make a call out to address this now so our people don’t have to feel fearful,” said Tribal Chief Mina Holmes. (Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Facebook photo)
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council seeks Indigenous-led task force in northern B.C. hospitals

Request made in an open letter to federal minister Carolyn Bennett

Ellis Ross (left), BC Liberal party, celebrated with his wife, Tracey after being named the preliminary winner of the 2020 snap provincial election.
Ross presumptive Skeena winner in snap B.C. election

Election outcome will not be official until mail-in ballots are counted

Voting has officially closed throughout B.C. for the 2020 snap provincial election. (Clare Rayment)
Map of Skeena polling stations

Watch the updates on the map below as polling stations are counted throughout Skeena riding

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps by 287, another senior home outbreak

Two more deaths recorded, community outbreak in Okanagan

An untitled Emily Carr painting of Finlayson Point was donated to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria by brothers Ian and Andrew Burchett. The painting had been in their family for several decades. (Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)
Never before seen painting by famed B.C. artist Emily Carr gifted to Victoria gallery

Painting among several donated to Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

The B.C. Centre for Disease control is telling people to keep an eye out for the poisonous death cap mushroom, which thrives in fall weather conditions. (Paul Kroeger/BCCDC)
Highly poisonous death cap mushroom discovered in Comox

This marks first discovery on Vancouver Island outside Greater Victoria area

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
Rescued bald eagle that came to life in B.C. man’s car had lead poisoning

Bird is on medication and recovering in rehab centre

Janet Austin, lieutenant governor of B.C., was presented with the first poppy of the Royal Canadian Legion’s 2020 Poppy Campaign on Wednesday. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)
PHOTOS: B.C. Lieutenant Governor receives first poppy to kick off 2020 campaign

Janet Austin ‘honour and a privileged’ to receive the poppy

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Premier-elect John Horgan and cabinet ministers are sworn in for the first time at Government House in Victoria, July 18, 2017. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)
Pandemic payments have to wait for B.C. vote count, swearing-in

Small businesses advised to apply even if they don’t qualify

A raccoon paid a visit to a Toronto Tim Hortons on Oct. 22, 2020. (shecallsmedrew/Twitter)
Who are you calling a trash panda? Raccoon takes a shift at Toronto Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons said animal control was called as soon they saw the surprise visitor

The duffel bags were found to contain 84 pounds of cocaine, valued at approximately $1.2 million and 198 pounds of methamphetamine, valued at approximately $960,000. Photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
2 men accused of fleeing border agents near U.S.-B.C. border with $2M in drugs

Cocaine and methamphetamine seized by U.S. law enforcement in remote Idaho area near Canadian border

Most Read