Sandy Hook survivors graduate with mixed emotions without 20 of their classmates: NPR

Ella Seaver shares her thoughts on graduating high school with other survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting before a rally against gun violence Friday, June 7, 2024 in Newtown, Conn. .

Bryan Woolston/AP

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Bryan Woolston/AP

NEWTOWN, CT. — Like graduates everywhere, members of Newtown High School’s Class of 2024 are expecting bittersweet feelings at their commencement ceremony: excitement about heading off to college or a career and the sadness of leaving their friends and community.

But about 60 of the 330 children graduating Wednesday will also carry the emotional burden of having survived one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history and knowing that many former classmates will not be able to make it through the scene with them. Twenty of their fellow first graders and six teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 1. 14, 2012.

The victims will be honored during the ceremony, but details have been kept secret.

Soon, these Sandy Hook survivors will leave the community that many call a “bubble” because of the comfort and protection it offers them from the outside world. Five of them spoke with The Associated Press to discuss their graduation, their future plans and how the tragedy continues to shape their lives.

“They will be there with us”

“I think we’re all very excited about this day,” said Lilly Wasilnak, 17, who was in a classroom down the hall from where her classmates were killed. “But I think we can’t forget… that a whole section of our class is missing. And so, as we approach graduation, we all have very mixed emotions – trying to be excited for ourselves and for this accomplishment that we’ve accomplished. It’s very hard for, but also for those who can’t share it with us, who should have been able to.”

Emma Ehrens was one of 11 children in Class 10 to survive the attack. She and other students managed to flee when the shooter stopped to reload and another student, Jesse Lewis, yelled for everyone to run. Jesse didn’t make it. Five children and the two teachers present in the room were killed.

“I’m definitely going to feel a lot of mixed emotions,” Ehrens, 17, said. “I’m super excited to be finishing high school and moving on to the next chapter of my life. But I’m also so…sad, I guess, to have to go through this alone…I like to think that they will be there with us and walk through this stage with us.

Grace Fischer, 18, was in a classroom down the hall after the murders with Ella Seaver and Wasilnak. With just 11 days until Christmas, the school was in the holiday spirit and the children were looking forward to making gingerbread houses that day.

“As much as we tried to have this normal experience, like childhood and high school, it wasn’t quite normal,” Fischer said. “But even though we’re missing… a lot of our class, like Lilly said, we’re still graduating. … We want to be those regular teenagers walking across the stage this that day and feel that, like, a sense of celebration within us, knowing that we’ve made it this far.

Leaving home and the “bubble”

Many survivors said they continue to live with the trauma of that day: Loud noises still make them jump out of their seats, and some still watch for exits from a room. Many have spent years in therapy for post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

The city offered a range of services to families. Authorities shielded them as much as possible from the media and outsiders, and students said leaving such a protective community would be both difficult and somewhat liberating.

“At Sandy Hook, what happened still weighs on us,” said Matt Holden, 17, who was in a classroom down the hall after the shooting. “I think going away and being able to create new memories and meet new people, even though we’ll be more isolated from people who have stories like us, we’ll be freer to write our own story. And in a way, you know , don’t let this event that happened because we were very young define our lives.

Ehrens said she felt some anxiety about leaving Newtown, but that it was a necessary step to begin the next chapter of her life.

“I really feel like we’re kind of stuck in the same system that we’ve been stuck in for 12 years,” she said.

“For me, I feel like it’s definitely going to get better and I’ll be able to break free from this system and be able to just become my own person rather than, again, the kid from Sandy Hook,” Ehrens said .

Fischer echoed that sentiment, saying that while it will be difficult to leave the town and friends she grew up with, she will make new friends and build a new community while exploring new challenges in college .

“Sandy Hook will always be with me,” she said.

Emma Ehrens, center, survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, speaks with other survivors during a rally against gun violence Friday, June 7, 2024, in Newtown, Connecticut.

Emma Ehrens, center, survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, speaks with other survivors during a rally against gun violence Friday, June 7, 2024, in Newtown, Connecticut.

Bryan Woolston/AP

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Bryan Woolston/AP

Tragedy spurs activism and shapes their futures

All five seniors have been active in the Junior Newtown Action Alliance and its efforts against gun violence, saying they want to prevent shootings through gun control and other measures. Last week, several of them met with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House to discuss their experiences and call for change.

They say their deceased classmates motivated their advocacy, which they all plan to continue after high school.

Seaver, 18, said working with the alliance made her feel less helpless. She plans to study psychology in college and become a therapist, wanting to give back to her community in a way that has helped her.

“Having my voice heard and working with all of these amazing people to try to create change really gives meaning to the trauma that we’ve all been forced to experience,” Seaver said. “It’s a way to feel like you’re doing something. Because we are. We’re fighting for change and we’re really not going to stop until we achieve it.”

Ehrens said she plans to study political science and law, with the goal of becoming a politician or civil rights lawyer.

Fischer said she, too, hopes to become a civil rights lawyer.

Holden plans to major in political science and wants to lobby for changes in gun policy.

Wasilnak, meanwhile, said she has yet to choose a major option, but intends to continue speaking out against gun violence.

“For me, I knew I wanted to do something more since I was younger when the first tragedy happened,” Wasilnak said. “I wanted to turn such a terrible thing into something more, and for these children and these educators not to die for nothing. Of course, what happened to them was horrible, and it should never have happened. But I think that for me, something greater had to come out of it, otherwise it would all have been for nothing.

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