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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Elizabeth Williamson

The Lessons of Newtown for the Future of Uvalde

Tim Clayton / Corbis / Getty

Isla Vista, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, Thousand Oaks, Virginia Beach, Buffalo: Over the decade since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, scores of American communities have become inextricably linked to mass death. With the killing of 19 children and two of their teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the town of 16,000 near the southern border became yet another of our nation’s landmarks of loss.

History suggests that the attention of Americans—overwhelmed, defeated, or distracted by the next outrage—will not linger long on Uvalde. Soon its people will be on their own, to manage reverberating pain. Newtown, Connecticut, knows something about that.  

My book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, is about the aftermath of the December 14, 2012, shooting that claimed the lives of 20 first graders and six educators in Newtown. Sandy Hook was the first mass shooting to spawn viral false claims that the massacre was staged by the federal government as a pretext for confiscating Americans’ firearms. But that was only one of the secondary injuries. Newtown knows how the damage to bodies and lives radiates outward like fallout for years after a mass shooting, scarring a community in ways outsiders do not often see.

This week, as the funerals began, Monsignor Robert Weiss, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, who officiated eight children’s funerals, called Uvalde a reminder that communities should cease thinking such horror could never befall them, and instead prepare for it.  

[Read: Our narrative of mass shootings is killing us]

My book begins with Newtown in the aftermath, struggling with a media onslaught that often made victims’ relatives feel, one said, like “prey”; a flood of well-meaning but burdensome donations; and the predations of conspiracy ghouls. What this 300-year-old community of 27,000 endured signals what lies ahead for Uvalde—and the next town, and the next.

The killing of such young children and their teachers just before the winter holidays in 2012 prompted a global spasm of heartbreak and generosity. Hundreds of thousands of letters, cards, banners, and murals decorated and signed by schoolchildren flowed into Newtown. Songs, symphonies, and plays were written. Alongside the road near one of the many ad hoc memorials, an elderly man sat in the open hatchback of his car for hours, playing soothing music on his violin. On an easel sign next to him he had written, “Our tears are on your shoulders, and our hands are in yours.”

Such gestures moved the families deeply. “There was so much love; it was beyond imagining,” Scarlett Lewis, whose son, Jesse, died, told me. It also burdened the town in unimaginable ways.

Americans tried to heal Newtown’s pain and their own with a tsunami of cash and goods. Tens of millions of dollars poured in. Sixty-eight thousand teddy bears lay in mounds on the streets. Crates of tissues and personal-care products, school supplies, books, food, used clothing, and household items forced the town to secure a warehouse, where volunteers worked in shifts to sort it all. Personalized artwork, toys, and ornaments greatly moved the families, but they too struggled to store all the incoming gifts. Corporate swag arrived by truckload: more bicycles, skateboards, and sports equipment than Newtown has children; commemorative sneakers in the school colors. Invitations to professional sports games and clinics, concerts and films, museums and theme parks poured in. Overwhelmed, Newtown leaders pleaded with donors to redirect the flow of goods and services to their own communities. But it kept coming, sowing resentment and division, and ensnaring well-meaning town leaders in acrimony over the distribution of charitable contributions that among some residents persists to this day.

At the end of December, two weeks after the shooting, First Selectman Pat Llodra invited the families to pay a final visit to the many outdoor memorials that had sprung up and to take whatever they wanted of the messages, toys, candles, and flowers. Then, late at night, the public-works department dismantled and carted them away.

The town composted the mounds of flowers, archived examples of the gifts, and burned the rest. Llodra called the ashes “sacred soil” and promised to use them in a memorial to the victims one day. It took eight years of fraught discussion before construction on a memorial began. Some Newtowners didn’t want to be reminded of the tragedy. Some objected to the cost of the original project, and it was scaled back. Others worried that the site would be targeted by conspiracy theorists, who had defaced and disrupted other commemorative efforts. The memorial is slated to open on the tenth anniversary of the shooting.

Most divisive was the money. Within a month nearly 80 different fundraising groups had mushroomed online, some of them ill-equipped to manage what they collected, and a few of them fraudulent. In Newtown the donations ignited a bitter public struggle between the families of the victims and the local United Way, which collected millions in the days following the shooting, with no plan or ability, according to its charter, to give the money directly to victims’ families. United Way collects money in keeping with its philosophy that the entire community needs support after a disaster. But its practices have come in for harsh criticism by survivors of past mass shootings.

Robbie Parker, whose daughter Emilie was killed in the attack, directed his full rage toward the charity. It was the suffering of the children that inspired people to give, he said. “That’s the only reason that this money exists,” he told me. It seemed unfair that it should be spread more broadly. “That was one of the things that really got me fired up.”

People pin a banner to a fence in Newtown.
A banner reading "Pray for Newtown" pinned to a fence at Sandy Hook Elementary School 24 hours after the attack (Neville Elder / Corbis / Getty)

United Way of Western Connecticut eventually raised $10.2 million for Newtown. In response to the families’ criticism, it created the Newtown–Sandy Hook Community Foundation, led by a five-member board composed of community leaders who scoured donor notes and emails, trying to determine the donors’ intent. They decided that of the $10.2 million, $7.7 million would be divided among the families of the 26 victims, two wounded educators, and 12 families of surviving children who had been in classrooms where children and educators were killed. The remaining $3 million and any future donations would stay with the foundation.

That did not satisfy all the families. They consulted Kenneth R. Feinberg and his colleague Camille Biros, who had worked pro bono on similar issues after 9/11 and other mass tragedies. They began their participation in Newtown with a series of town-hall meetings. These gatherings were among the most wrenching Feinberg had ever attended.

[Read: Students should refuse to go back to school]

“There were no villains,” Feinberg told me. “But how many people who watch on TV the death of these kids send a check to the United Way, as opposed to helping out these families?

“All the money should go to the families.”

Newtown’s struggle prompted change. The National Compassion Fund, established in 2014 by people touched by tragedy, collects and channels contributions directly to survivors. For Uvalde, the fund has teamed up with the San Antonio Area Foundation, the Community Foundation of the Texas Hill Country, and VictimsFirst. The idea is to maintain two funds, one for victims and survivors and one for the broader community, Marc C. Lenahan, the National Compassion Fund’s chair, told me. They have raised more than $6 million so far.

“You’re hurting, and part of the process is you’re gonna have anger,” Parker told me. “And if you throw money into that, then that is just like gasoline on a fire.”

Along with the media onrush and charitable response came another, far more malevolent form of attention. It has happened many times since, but Sandy Hook was the first mass tragedy to spawn an online circle of people impermeable and hostile to reality and its messengers. They attacked the mainstream media, law enforcement, and even the families of the dead, for whom the torment by deniers added immeasurably to their pain.

Conspiracy “investigators” toured Newtown with cameras, showing up outside the fenced-off, guarded, and empty school. After classes reconvened for the children who survived Sandy Hook, conspiracists spied on and telephoned the school’s temporary location, convinced that no students actually went there.

Reports filed by state troopers described people coming to the families’ homes and digging through their trash. Conspiracy theorists swore at family members on the street, looked into their windows, vandalized their homes and memorials to the victims. They sent them emails demanding, “Repent for your sins.” One parent was barraged with phone calls and emails saying, “Your daughter is not dead. Your daughter is alive.” Monte Frank, the outside counsel for Newtown and its board of education, guided the response to requests for hundreds of pages of public records, including from Sandy Hook deniers seeking photographs of the murder scene, the children’s bodies, and receipts for the cleanup of “bodily fluids, brain matter, skull fragments and around 45 to 60 gallons of blood.” When Frank and the state of Connecticut found a legal means to counter the conspiracists’ abuse of public-records law, they created a website devoted to attacking him.

With the gun lobby under pressure, some of its members found common cause with mass-shooting conspiracists, and at least one NRA official made a cynical attempt to exploit Sandy Hook conspiracism. Today, spreading lies about mass shootings has become commonplace, even strategic on the far right, as evidenced by the paranoia on offer at the NRA’s Houston convention after Uvalde, and the agenda-driven misinformation spread by some members of Congress and former President Donald Trump.

The Sandy Hook gunman’s house also drew conspiracy theorists. A year after the shooting, the Lanza family gave the house to Newtown. Determined that nothing inside would find its way onto the murder-memorabilia market, the bank that handled the transaction burned the home’s entire contents. The 3,100-square-foot house was razed in early 2015; a local contractor obliterated even the driveway. The town intends for the site to remain vacant, reclaimed in time by the surrounding woods.

The conspiracists’ intrusions were a factor in Newtown’s decision to demolish Sandy Hook Elementary. Construction fencing shielded the place where the children and educators had fallen. Contractors signed nondisclosure agreements and agreed not to remove anything from the site without authorization, not even dirt. Trucks carted the rubble to undisclosed locations, where it was melted, crushed, and milled to dust.

To the conspiracy theorists, the destruction and secrecy were further “proof” that Newtown had something to hide.

A man wearing a Newtown jacket visits a memorial.
Greg Frattaroli, 19, visits a memorial for the shooting victims in Newtown.

In early 2019, more than six years after the shooting, Neil Heslin, Jesse Lewis’s father, guided me on a car tour of Newtown, speaking about his boy’s last hours as we drove. We ended our route at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, opened in 2016. The school day had ended, and we drove through open security gates into the parking lot.

Nestled among trees behind a slalom course of barriers, the school’s warm timber facade resembles undulating waves. The windows are antiballistic, the surrounding rain garden a stylized moat. Mary Ann Jacob, the Sandy Hook librarian who had sheltered a group of fourth graders inside a barricaded closet during the massacre, told me that the school’s computers blocked all external information about Sandy Hook school, so the students “wouldn’t see God knows what.”

[Read: Don’t let the cameras turn away]

The best security money can buy arrived too late to save his son, Neil Heslin noted, adding that the gunman, who “weighed 110 pounds soaking wet,” still could have slipped through its gates and bollards like a letter through a slot.

“That’s the murder site,” Neil said as we passed a gentle grassy berm topped with saplings, to the right of the entrance. Or is it the left? The berms match and are purposely unmarked, to discourage those without a legitimate reason to know where the bodies once lay.

Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis had been angry about the decision not to mark the site. The state gave Newtown $50 million to build this school. Local politicians made sure their names were associated with it, they said. But what about the people who died here?

Communities do pull together when they lose their own. But after the funerals end and the crowds go away, pain settles like miasma. Misunderstandings fester, recriminations begin, stray voltage erupts everywhere. On the ground, savage, random violence does not immediately lend itself to redemptive narratives, to “[town name here] Strong.” It terrifies. It strips people of their lives and loved ones, their sense of control and safety, their trust in humanity’s basic goodness. And then it moves on to the next community, leaving the people to suffer and, with long, hard work, to survive. That is not anyone’s idea of a happy ending, but it’s the truth.

This article has been adapted from Elizabeth Williamson’s new book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth.

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