NEWTOWN, Conn. — They relocated the entire student body to a new school unstained by blood. They brought in counselors to soothe shattered nerves, and parents to comfort the distraught.
But authorities know they cannot erase the lingering effects of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School – students and faculty members still on edge, still traumatized by the sounds of gunshots and by the horrors they survived.
In the new school building in the neighboring town of Monroe, police remain a presence. Signs ask people to close doors softly and not to drag objects across the floor.
“There are reactions to noises, doors slamming, things being dropped have a strong startled response,” said Newtown School Superintendent Janet Robinson. “We’re really just trying to have the whole school be as calm as possible.”
A group of Sandy Hook Elementary School third-graders attending a Brownie meeting on a recent day heard a loud noise and looked around nervously. Though the troop leader assured them it was probably just someone pushing a cart, one girl began to cry.
“You can tell that every little sound that is made in that school, the kids are still extremely scared,” said Brenda Lebinski, parent of a third-grader who witnessed the episode.
At home, Robinson said, parents say children have cried and asked, “Is the bad man coming back?”
“Having your safety shattered for everyone involved — kids, parents, teachers, administrators — I think it’s going to be very difficult to recapture that sense of safety,” Robinson said.
Parents have been volunteering as hall monitors and aides to help comfort the students. Teachers, still coping with their own trauma, also struggle to make the children feel safe.
“I think they’re exhausted, mentally, physically,” said Wendy Davenson, a therapist working with school staff. “It takes ages to create a safe environment after something like this. I think the teachers are trying so hard to do that for the students and yet some of them may not really feel particularly safe either.”
On the morning of Dec. 14, a 20-year-old gunman entered the school and slaughtered 20 first-graders and six staff members before killing himself. Gunshots resounded through the school on the public address system; teachers hid with students in classrooms until they were rescued by police, and some passed the carnage on their way out.
When the students returned to school on Jan. 3, it was in a different building — the former Chalk Hill Middle School. It had been refurbished, and desks and other equipment were brought in from Sandy Hook.
But there was no way to pretend that the shootings did not happen.
Kiki Leyba, a teacher who survived the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, spoke last month to about a dozen Sandy Hook staff members. Leyba said he told them how he couldn’t sleep, jumped at noises and looked for exits wherever he went, even church.
Sandy Hook educators shared similar experiences, describing how they were jumpy around noises and had trouble sleeping and concentrating, Leyba said.
“I just can’t say it strongly enough, if they spare no expense taking care of that staff, no one will ever regret it,” he said. “The students will feel the benefits of that, the parents will feel the benefits of that. That staff is so traumatized.”
Mental health services have been available from the beginning and will continue to be offered, Robinson said. Specialists trained in child trauma have been brought in, she said.
A few teachers have taken short periods of time off. “We understand that this is a trauma that people take different lengths of time to get over and it may re-occur with some memory, so we’re trying to be very understanding about that,” Robinson said.
Survivors of such shootings can experience nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance in which they are constantly on the lookout for danger and startled responses, said Russell Jones, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech who counseled survivors of a mass shooting at his school. Between 8 to 15 percent of those who experience traumas such as mass shootings develop PTSD, but about half of them no longer have the symptoms after three months, he said.
Sounds and smells associated with mass shootings can bring back memories of the horror, said Carolyn Mears, author of the book “Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma.”
Mears, whose son survived the Columbine shooting, said the high school for years had a sign on its entrance declaring the building a balloon-free school because the popping of balloons sounded like the echo of gunfire. The school also changed the sound of its fire alarm so that students and staff would not be reminded of the sound from the shooting, she said.
“The one message I would give to the parents, the teachers, the community itself it is possible to live through this kind of uncertainty and grief and loss and shattering experience and make a future that holds happiness and joy,” Mears said, noting that it will take time.
Brenda Lebinski said she’s heard from other parents that some children have outbursts they never had before. When she hears gunshots on TV, Lebinski’s daughter tells her mother to turn it off immediately. Lebinski is coping by keeping her daughter busy with sports and other activities.
Another parent of a survivor, Stephen Delgiudice, said his 8-year-old daughter doesn’t talk about the shooting, but appears to be doing well.
“The transition has been really nice. They’ve done everything one can imagine for the kids,” Delgiudice said. “So far we’re very pleased with the security at the school.”
He himself turned to acupuncture and counseling to help him deal with the anger he felt.
“How could someone do this to these children?” Delgiadice said. “How could this happen?”