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Two Years After Shootings, Newtown Works to Heal as Nation Looks for Lessons

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It's been two years since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history, and no event has come close to matching its influence in discussions of school safety and student well-being in the time since.

The anniversary of the Dec. 14, 2012 school shootings that killed 20 children and six adults is Sunday, and congregations of all faiths in the small town plan to mark the event with special prayers, reflections, and gatherings.

Newtown residents I've talked to are quick to point out that anniversaries of the shootings are mostly significant to the media and to people from outside the area—serving as an "I remember where I was when I heard about Sandy Hook" moment. For people most directly impacted by the events, which includes much of the town, the anniversary of the event known as "12/14" serves as another day of healing and hurting, they say.

Newtown is still working to rebuild, both physically and psychologically. After the old building was razed, work has begun on a new Sandy Hook Elementary, which workers expect to complete by fall 2016. And the city is using millions of dollars in federal grants to pay for ongoing mental health services and social-emotional programs in schools.

Superintendent Joseph Erardi said in September that the community's recovery is slow and unpredictable, with new and unexpected challenges hiding in the midst of life's routines. Working with child trauma specialists, he projected it will take between 12 and 15 years for the district to fully recover.

Beyond the boundaries of Newtown, the shooting is still informing conversations about schools and public policy throughout the country. While gun laws and efforts to arm teachers draw most of the headlines, issues related to school climate, culture, and the ways educators interact with students are also very central to those discussions.

Mental Health

A state review of the mental health and educational history of shooter Adam Lanza released in November showed layers of missed opportunities to intervene and address his psychological and emotional problems. Lanza shot his mother at home before going to the school that day, and he killed himself after the shootings.

While no single issue can be blamed for Lanza's actions, the report found that fragmented services, a lack of coordination between schools and mental health providers, and family members who were unwilling to address certain parts of Lanza's mental illness may have made his situation worse.

Even before the report was released, states and districts took actions to address mental health issues through legislation and new policies that emphasized mental health screenings, professional development for teachers, and coordination with community mental health providers. Advocates stress that this work is far from finished.

Threat Assessment

Lanza fit the stereotype that portrays school shooters as white, socially isolated, males who play violent video games. But, as conversations have turned to violence prevention, experts have emphasized that all kinds of people have committed school shootings and have signaled the need for broad prevention efforts.

As a result, more schools and communities have adopted threat-prevention approaches that stress greater coordination between educators and law enforcement officials. As I reported in February, many states have revived or strengthened anonymous reporting systems so they can intervene early in threats of violence.

School Climate

While schools have shelled out cash to upgrade security systems and buildings as a response to Sandy Hook, youth violence experts have also encouraged them to take steps to strengthen school climate. In most acts of school violence, shooters "leak" or share their intentions beforehand, they say. Creating a safe space where students feel comfortable reporting threats or sharing struggles aids in prevention, experts say.

Appreciation for Teachers

Schools were doing lockdown drills and juggling the social and emotional needs of students long before 2012, but the Newtown shootings brought a new dimension to the public's understanding of the role of teachers. A letter to teachers from Nelba Marquez-Greene, who lost her  6-year-old daughter Ana Grace in the shootings, remains one of the most popular pieces on Education Week's website. An excerpt from that letter:

"It takes guts to be a teacher. Six brave women gave their lives trying to protect their students at Sandy Hook. Other teachers were forced to run from the building, stepping over the bodies of their friends and colleagues, and they came right back to work.

When I asked my son's teacher why she returned, she responded, 'Because they are my kids. And my students need me now more than ever.' She sent daily updates on my son's progress, from his behavior to what he'd eaten for lunch. And four months later, when my son finally smiled one day after school, I asked him about it. His response? 'Mom. My teacher is so funny. I had an epic day.'

While I pray you will never find yourself in the position of the teachers at Sandy Hook, your courage will support students like my son, who have lived through traumas no child should have to."

Photo: A makeshift memorial studded with crosses representing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting stands outside of a home in Newtown, Conn., in 2013. -Robert F. Bukaty/AP-File​

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