Five Years Since Newtown

There have been 92 school shootings between 1999’s Columbine and 2012’s Newtown.

The shooter who carried out the Newtown massacre has succeeded in terrorizing me, some five years later. I remember the day like I remember 9/11. Details bother me. They make me very sad and anxious.

In 2012, I was at my desk at the women’s magazine where I was working as a fashion editor. A CNN alert came up on my iPhone. I loaded CNN.com onto my desktop. The breaking news report said police were responding to a school shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. The details were not yet known. Someone got shot in the foot, maybe.

My brain flashed back to Columbine — another day I can recall at the drop of a dime. I was a senior in high school. We were allowed to leave campus for lunch. I drove the two minutes home. My golden retriever, Brandy greeted me at the door. It was 1999 and there was a small TV in the kitchen that I flipped on, before making a ham and cheese sandwich.

I sat at the kitchen table, didn’t eat and listened to the report. Two shooters were murdering students at a Colorado high school. Protocol back then was not like it is now — first responders did not storm the school. Today, first responders are trained to move in and subdue the active shooter. There is no waiting.

Columbine was the first time I was presented with a school shooting that affected me; it was gut-wrenching to watch the footage. I was the same age as those kids. I didn’t want to go back to school, but I did and all the teachers were talking about it.

Richard Castaldo was shot during the Columbine massacre and survived. Today he told me, “there’s not many places on Earth where you hear of a shooting and immediately know what country it is — mass shooting? Must be the US. It’s disgusting.”

He wants universal background checks and wants to know why the ATF is forbidden to keep computerized records of gun purchases.

“The NRA and gun manufactures stand in the way of both of these issues.” The conspiracy theorists also cause Castaldo unnecessary frustration. Like those claiming Newtown never happened, people have harassed the 36-year-old survivor. “I’ve been told I’ve been faking my injuries for 17 years.” Castaldo was paralyzed from the waist down.

Today, he lives in Los Angeles and isn’t interested about recounting the 1999 massacre.

In my entire academic career I never participated in a lockdown drill. Fire drills, sure. The occasional moron who called in a bomb threat to derail test-taking, sure, the student body marched outside and hung out in the parking lot that was right next to the police station. I was a sophomore in college when 9/11 happened. There was no lockdown. My professor told us to go home.

When I was a kid, I never worried about someone shooting up my classroom. I worried about spelling tests and remembering the steps for the dance recital.

Today, I’m a mom. My son, Jack is 10. In 2012 he was 5 and in a kindergarten classroom at a private daycare center. I recall dropping him off December 14, 2012 and that it was cold, and he’d managed to lose a glove somewhere, yet still have the yellow matchbox car in the other gloved-hand. It wasn’t in the car. I remember worrying his hand would be cold during recess. I kissed and hugged him goodbye.

But the thought of his hand being cold stirred in my brain on my way to work. I was really freaked out about his tiny hand feeling frozen as he ran around on the rubber top playground and slid down the slide. I was so bothered by this, I called my dad and asked him to buy Jack a pair of gloves and bring them to the daycare center. He obliged, feeling the same way as me — his little hand would be freezing for sure!

My morning started like so many Newtown parents. Breakfast, mittens, hugs and see you after school.

I have flashbacks of that day, the missing glove, around this time of year and it is now so insignificant, because I compare it to Newtown parents finding out their child’s elementary school is under attack. I think about the chaos in the fire station where those parents were directed to find their children.

Sarah Caron’s son Will was in second grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School and survived. But she was tasked with going to the firehouse, to look for him, not knowing what was really going on.

The mom of two, described a scene of panic and confusion: “We [Sarah and her kindergartner] were crammed into two rooms, trying to make our way through the crowd. People were crying, panicking and I had no idea if my son was there … if he was OK. It felt like an eternity before I saw Will.”

Today, Will is in seventh grade and the family no longer lives in Connecticut. “It’s not something I dwell on,” Caron says. “A friend told me again and again after that day that ‘bad things happen on bad days.’ We don’t wake up thinking today will be a bad day and will not go through life like that.”

Caron says Will, who was in an unlocked classroom directly across the hall from the shooting — and listening to the pop-pop-pop of gunshots, takes lockdown drills at his school very seriously and gets a little annoyed when other students do not.

I would be too. I tell Jack it’s very important to just do what the teacher says in a lockdown or fire drill situation. It’s not a time to talk or ask questions. He’s 10, in grade four. I work for the same publishing company I did in 2012, just at a different publication.

Lockdown drills are apart of my child’s academic culture.

Over the summer the educators and all faculty at his school went through active shooter training with our local law enforcement.

Teachers at his school can lock the classroom door from the inside. They do not need to leave the classroom for even a second. Some teachers at the school keep their doors locked at all times, others keep a magnet up, high in the door jam, so the door is ajar, but if needed to be locked, the magnet is pulled out, the door is closed and locked 1–2–3.

Jack’s school has lockdown drills with law enforcement actively involved in the process. Police are always visible at drop-off and do walk-throughs during the day at his school. There is a crisis plan in order. The teachers are trained. In addition to locking down in the classroom, the children also do off-site drills where they are evacuated to a “safe house.” I appreciate the readiness and practice.

My child understands why there are lockdown drills. He knows what happened in Connecticut.

“The principal says Lockdown drill, I repeat lockdown drill, on the loud speaker,” he told me over breakfast. “My teacher tells us where to hide, even though we know and locks the door. She covers the door’s window so no one can look in. We’re crowded together and feel each other’s shoulders. We know we have to be quiet. My teacher pulls the blinds closed on the windows. I’m not scared, I know it’s a drill.”

“Jack’s concept of why schools conduct lock down drills is just fine,” Leah Klungness, a psychologist and parenting expert asserts. “This is our new normal in America. Emotionally, most kids associate lock down drills with fire drills,” she says. “Lock down drills save lives in the statistically unlikely event that some dangerously deranged individual tries to harm our kids.”

Jack went on to tell me about another drill “in case a bad guy is in the school.”

“We line up in single file and get out of the school. When we get to the secret safe place all the grades line up in order. My teacher calls out our names and we say here or present.”

“Success of lock down drills depends on kids following directions immediately,” adds Klungness.

Thankfully no one in my life has been directly involved in an active shooting, but that doesn’t clear my head. My doctor once told me that this is what the shooter wants, to terrorize me and other people. It’s the infamous goal.

She said I can’t let these experiences dictate my life. She reminded me of the church shooting in Charleston and the movie theater shooting in Aurora. She asked what my plan was? To home school Jack? Skip midnight mass on Christmas Eve? Never see a movie in a theater again?

My doctor asked if I’d flown with Jack post 9/11. I had, about six times. Everything she said clicked. I had to find a way to stop being so hyper-alert and irrational. And it is really important I don’t let my anxiety project onto my child.

“In the best interest of all kids, parents cannot act or speak in ways that make our kids fearful and anxious in school. Such slaughter was unthinkable until Columbine and Sandy Hook,” says Klungness. “Remember that schools are ready. In addition to lock down drills, many schools have installed special locks, surveillance cameras, bullet proof glass and have taken other safety measures. Schools work closely with law enforcement. No one is able to just walk into a school building anymore,” she says.

This morning, I kissed Jack and we exchanged the I love you bit. I told him he was ready for his test on the Lenape Indians and would do awesome.

As I watched my son, in his puffy red winter coat, backpack he got as a birthday gift this year, the indoor soccer cleats he insists on wearing, the hat on his head he didn’t want to wear … with his back to me as he ran across the big, snow-covered lawn, where he would join his friends — a faculty member always on guard. A local cop, on most days, present, smiling and greeting the kids.

About mid-lawn, I called out to him. He doesn’t like when I do this — he’s very cool.

“Jack,” I said

His body whipped around. His giant brown eyes. He’s so tall now. So funny.

“Love you, buddy, see ya later.” As I drove away, like everyday, I thought, keep my child safe.

Catch Richard Castaldo’s comedy act on the live broadcast, dromebox.com, Thursdays at 10 P.M.