NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Twenty days after the massacre that left 20 first graders and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, plunging a rural New England town and the nation into grief, classes resumed on Thursday for the more than 400 students who lived through the harrowing assault.
Across Newtown’s sprawling Sandy Hook neighborhood where the December 14 attack took place, children bundled in heavy winter coats boarded buses decked in green and white ribbons, their school colors, for the seven-mile journey to their new school.
Chalk Hill Middle School, an unused school in the neighboring town of Monroe, was refurbished specifically for the students from Newtown, and now bears a new but familiar name - Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Students on packed buses waved at clusters of photographers and TV cameras gathered at street corners along the bus route. Heightened security measures meant media was kept well away, but from a small plane above the new school, children getting off buses were seen running, hopping and skipping through the doors.
A steady stream of parents’ cars were seen pulling up to drop students off at the main entrance, where they were greeted by a dark-suited official.
Anca Roberto, 35, put her 5-year-old daughter, a kindergartner, on the bus not far from the old Sandy Hook school, which remains a bullet-riddled crime scene closed to everyone but police.
Roberto said she had been nervous about the return to school until Wednesday, when she and her daughter attended an open house at the new location. Her daughter was thrilled to find her cubby intact, moved from the old school, and she “screeched” when she saw her friends.
The students “hugged, and they played and they were just kids,” Roberto said. “The teachers were just amazing.”
With safety foremost on the minds of parents and officials in the wake of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, the school has been outfitted with a new security system. Monroe Police Department officers were patrolling the grounds, and all outside doorways and sidewalks were under surveillance.
“I think right now, we have to make this the safest school in America,” Monroe Police Lieutenant Keith White said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Asked if she was nervous about her daughter’s safety, Roberto said: “I was until yesterday. There’s just so much supervision. They’re in the safest place.”
Parents wishing to remain with their children, age 5 to 10 (kindergarten through fourth grade) were allowed to accompany them to their classrooms, and wait in the school’s “lecture room” for as long as they wished, according to a memo to parents on the school’s website. Counseling was to be available for students and parents at the new premises, the website said.
Erin Milgram, parent of a first-grader and a fourth-grader, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she planned to drive behind the school bus and stay with her 7-year-old daughter Lauren, whose teacher Kaitlin Roig had hidden her first-grade class in a closet during the attack.
“I haven’t gotten to that part yet about not being with them; I just need to stay with them for a while,” Milgram said, fighting back tears.
The new school has been decked out as a “Winter Wonderland,” with the help of thousands of children from around the world.
“This does not look like the other elementary school,” Newtown School Superintendent Janet Robinson said emphatically.
At the old Sandy Hook school on Thursday, a handful of police and emergency vehicles could be seen still parked in parking lot, now 20 days after the attack, and from the air workers could be seen carting debris to an open dumpster.
No new details have emerged to explain why 20-year-old Adam Lanza, armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, two other firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, targeted the school. State police investigators have said it could be months before they complete their report.
Described by family friends as having Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at their home about five miles from the school, before driving to Sandy Hook and embarking on the massacre, police said. He then took his own life as police arrived at the school, which had an enrollment of 456 before the attack, according to district enrollment figures from November.
The massacre in Newtown, a rural New England town of 27,000 residents about 70 miles northeast of New York City, stunned the nation and reignited a highly charged debate over gun control. President Barack Obama, who described December 14 as the worst day of his presidency, has tasked Vice President Joe Biden with assembling a package of gun-control proposals to submit to Congress over the next several weeks.
The National Rifle Association, the most powerful gun-rights lobby in the United States, has rebuffed calls for more stringent firearm restrictions and, instead, called for armed guards to patrol every public school in the country.
Writing by Dan Burns; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Carlo Allegri and Shannon Stapleton in Connecticut; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Bernadette Baum and Tim Dobbyn