Friday, December 14, 2012, began with great promise and a sense of excitement. Our town employee holiday party - a typically celebratory and riotous event for all 300 staff was planned for that evening – to be held at the Sandy Hook Firehouse, our usual location for this annual event. But then, at 9:35 a.m. our world changed forever. Gone was the sense of ease and bonhomie; gone was the pleasure of the season and anticipation of everything joyful that comes with a first snow, holiday lights, music, and parties. In its place came a cascade of grief and sorrow, a deep and dense despair.
There are no words sufficient to express how the senseless murder of 20 beautiful children and six educators who loved and cared for them touches the soul and hurts the human heart. The parents of loss suffered a harm that is forever; a hurt from which there is no escape, no salve, and no ease. And our community suffered a shock and a trauma that felt overwhelming and incomprehensible. How could it be that these precious children were murdered in their elementary school in our quiet and safe town? How can we make sense of the insensible? Is it ever possible to understand the why?
For me, as First Selectman - the chief elected official of our municipality, the challenge of leadership was immense and immediate. I cried for the parents of loss, wanting more than anything to be able to ease their hurt, but knowing of its impossibility. I cried too for my community – seeing the trauma, the stress, anxiety, anger, confusion, and fear. I felt overwhelming responsibility to help our community of 28,000 to accept the horror, to integrate it into our mutual experience such that we would be able, at some point, to be positive and forward looking again. There was no recipe, no road map from which I could learn how to navigate this tragedy. I am sad to say that there have been many, too many, mass shootings since the Newtown tragedy. We are learning more and more about how communities respond, what leaders should expect, and what strategies and responses best meet the needs of individuals and collectives. But, in 2012, the Newtown Sandy Hook School shooting took us all by surprise. Then, we never imagined the need to be prepared for such a horror.
I am often asked the question “How is Newtown doing?” I struggle to find the right and best way to respond. To say that we are ‘okay’, feels dismissive of the loss experienced by those who loved and cared for 20 little children and 6 educators. Further, the superficiality of the ‘okay’ answer lacks recognition that we, Newtown, are different now, that we have changed through the experience of the Sandy Hook School tragedy. There is no single way to describe or define how a community of 28,000 individuals feels or thinks, acts or processes. Each person travels the journey of grief in personal, idiosyncratic fashion. Trauma changes folks, in visible and less visible ways. Those impacts are experienced on a continuum depending on many factors. For sure, we all are more aware that the world is not always a safe place; that our assumption that bad things happen in other places and to other people is a falsity. We are now more creatures of the larger universe, part of a fraternity characterized by trauma. There are those who say we are better in some ways since the tragedy at SHS – that we are more kind, more careful to consider the needs of others, and more attentive especially to those who are needy in some mental health or learning way. I’d like to think that is true. I know it is for me. I am less judgmental. I take more time to listen, to try to understand those who may differ from me in thoughts or actions. My brain is hard-wired differently now. The experience of December 14, 2012 has taken hold in my very being.
We are different in other ways, too. Our schools and public buildings have been ‘hardened’ against intrusion. We are very vigilant for others that might wish harm to us or to our children. We have sophisticated school-based safety protocols and we have communication systems set up to alert everyone when danger or threat looms. We are fine-tuned to media alerts of shootings in other locations and we struggle to not relive our December 14, 2012, experience every time. I would like to say that the reliving of our horror is more manageable each time, or as time passes, but I am sure that is not so for the families of loss. How do you ever get over that empty chair at the dining room table, the empty bedroom, the unfulfilled promise of a life?
But, in fact, the passage of time has healed some of the hurt, at least at a community level. We have regained much of our verve, our energy, our passion, and our confidence that the future is bright. History tells us that not every community survives trauma. We know that successful survival takes grit, planning, leadership, and some luck too. I feel fortunate to have been surrounded by wise, kind, and supportive colleagues during those early days after December 14, 2012. I could never have anticipated that I would be called upon to lead a community through such trauma. Nothing in my personal life or professional careers hinted at such future challenges. In the final analysis, I relied on what I learned as a leader in other settings. That is, good leadership is about the right mix of head and heart. When in doubt, follow your heart.
Immediately following the event at SHS, many leaders from other locales and from state and federal levels came forward with offers of help, including practical information as well as monetary resources. Noteworthy also for any community in trauma, is the importance of natural conveners, such as civic and social groups, and the religious community. These organizations, clubs, neighborhood groups, troops, teams, and more each play a pivotal support role for its members. Their impact can be felt across ripples of membership that touch layers and levels of a community. Newtown is blessed to have many such dynamic and well-led formal and informal organizations. I never felt truly alone, though in local governmental terms, I was the single elected official with responsibility and authority for decision –making at all levels.
So much happened during those first weeks and months that even now 5 ½ years later it is difficult for me to capture it all. Communication is the one piece that I speak about mostly when asked what stands out as important in my leadership response those first few days and weeks. From that very first day it was paramount that the community hear my voice – the voice of leadership. I think of that communication as having three aspects: information, inspiration, and aspiration. My hope was to have clear and coherent information partnered with messages that inspire service to the cause of recovery and care for others. Further, set a vision and hope for the future that engages others to see beyond the hurt of today to a better tomorrow. It was hoped, too, that these communications would develop a sense of togetherness, that the listeners are not alone, but rather part of a larger group of caring folks and we will help each other through the hurt. In retrospect, and as I have learned more and more from trauma experts, I feel pleased with my emphasis on communication and with an understanding of the aspects of clarity, inspiration, and aspiration. I feel ‘lucky’ to have had this instinctual impulse – to follow what my heart suggested to be right and true. As it turns out quality communication is a key attribute to a recovery plan.
As I consider us now – as individuals and as part of a larger community, I see how some have taken paths not previously explored. Many of us are now engaged and committed to programs of non-violence and gun safety. Our schools and community programs are focused on mental health and wellness. Significant work is being done by several of the organizations and foundations established by the families of loss. I am proud of Newtown – more than ever do I see how good folks can make good things happen out of bad circumstances. I see how our early actions in establishing appropriate supports for children and families have been positive and effective. And that we have maintained needed funding for these programs, knowing that persons of all ages were affected by the trauma of the shooting and that support and care will be needed for decades. I am proud, too, of the way in which Newtown managed relationships with levels of state and federal government. These relationships were essential to our recovery. We faced an extraordinary need for resources, for materials and supplies, for practical advice, for managerial expertise. I was thrust into a limelight I did not seek and did not relish. But, I am proud to have done my best with the circumstances and know that I did not falter in my commitment to do the best I could for my community.
A sadness for me, as I examine my own responses during those first months, is that I did not always rightly balance the needs of the families of loss versus the long-term needs of the community. I think there were times that I could have been more measured in my actions and more attentive to the needs of the families. So often, the scope of needs was just too great for me to handle well. I am hopeful that folks know that my heart was always in the right place, that perfection and ability to absolutely meet the expectations of every person was a too high mountain to climb.