Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Newtown schools reopen as town continues to grieve

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. 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 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.

"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 third and fourth so far and the first of eight to be held at the church. Memorial services and wakes were also held for some of the adult victims.

As mourners gathered, a motorcade led by police arrived for the funeral of little James, who loved recess and math and couldn't wait until he was old enough to order a footlong Subway sandwich.

Traffic in front of the church slowed to a crawl as police directed vehicles into the 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.

"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.

At a wake for first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, 27, mourners, many wearing green-and-white ribbons, stood in a line that wrapped around a funeral home in nearby Stratford.

"Big smile, great eyes, just a wonderful person," Lauren Ostrofsky said of Soto, who was killed as she tried to shield her students from the gunman. "If anyone could be an example of what a person should be today, it's her."

Tensions in the shattered community ran high as the grief of parents and townspeople collided with the crush of media.

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 Friday, when Adam Lanza, 20, 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," Hickey said. "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."

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