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Yvonne Abraham

Sandy Hook promises unkept

WHATELY — It was supposed to change everything.

But since the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook, everything is pretty much the same. Shattered by the barbarism of that December day — two years ago Sunday — we soothed our aching hearts with vows of transformation: We promised ourselves saner gun laws, better treatment for mental illness, more compassion, closer communities.

It all fell away, our grief and determination giving way to bitter politics and empty posturing, to time and forgetting.

There have been at least 10 school shootings since then. Ten times, some armed, deranged person went into a school or university aiming to mow down as many as possible.


“Never again,” we said after Sandy Hook. They were only words.

And so the lock-down call came over the speakers at Whately Elementary School just before 11 on Thursday morning. Teachers and students sped into action. Lights went off. Blinds came down. Children gathered, crouched down, grew quiet. A second-grader sprinted from the bathroom to her classroom. Doors closed. Locks clicked. Within seconds, the whole school was dark and silent.

They do these drills every few months in this bucolic town just north of Northampton, and in schools across the state. Lock-down drills started at least a decade ago: Before Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Conn., there was April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colo. — and a sickening cavalcade of carnage in between.

After Sandy Hook, the State Police established a special, full-time school safety unit in Western Massachusetts. Led by Sergeant Rick Gawron, the team spends five days a week preparing students for situations no kid should ever have to think about.

The broken souls who do these things tend to “study the daylights out of the last guy who did it,“ Gawron said, and come up with horrifying variations, whatever causes the most carnage. So Gawron and other specialists become students too, adapting their training to take account of each deadly innovation.


Schools in smaller, rural towns like Whately have extra challenges. There is only one police officer on duty per shift here, patrolling 21 square miles. Though school safety is well coordinated, with officers from surrounding towns attending drills and getting to know the school, it could take minutes longer for backup to arrive here than in more densely populated places. That makes drills even more important in Whately. And it puts extra pressure on principal Pete Crisafulli and his teachers.

“Since Sandy Hook, I look at my teachers differently,” Crisafulli said. “You start to see them as protectors. God forbid, if something bad happens, they need to be empowered to do what they think is best.”

When the drill was over, Trooper Jim Carmichael unlocked classroom doors and turned on the lights. “Police,” he announced gently. “Good job! I couldn’t see anybody or hear anybody.” In the hallway, away from the kids, he talked to teachers about what went wrong. One classroom door wouldn’t lock; a lighted smartboard wouldn’t turn off; kids weren’t in the safest spot — in a real crisis, these could be the difference between life and death.

But this was just pretend. The kids, who have been practicing for years, are matter-of-fact about it. My own first-grader runs through the terrifying scenarios — if a person comes in with a gun, if there’s an explosion — and escape plans with startling cheerfulness.


In Whately, Carmichael was praising one group of kids when a delighted boy jumped up. “I want to be a police officer!” he said.

It was impossible to see his impish, beaming face and not think of those first-graders at Sandy Hook, who wanted to be things when they grew up, too.

We broke the promises we made after we lost them. And so this is all we’re left with: Darkened rooms where crouching children practice silence, while the rest of us hope to God they stay lucky.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at