As classes resume, town cloaked in grief

Easton police officer J. Sollazzo waves to returning children as their bus pulls into Hawley School on Tuesday in Newtown, Conn. Classes resume Tuesday for Newtown schools except those at Sandy Hook.
Easton police officer J. Sollazzo waves to returning children as their bus pulls into Hawley School on Tuesday in Newtown, Conn. Classes resume Tuesday for Newtown schools except those at Sandy Hook. (JASON DeCROW / Associated Press)
Posted: December 19, 2012

NEWTOWN, Conn. - Newtown returned its students to their classrooms Tuesday for the first time since last week's massacre and faced the agonizing task of laying others to rest, as this grieving town wrestled with the same issues gripping the country: violence, gun control and finding a way forward.

Funerals were held for two more of the tiny fallen, a 6-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. A total of 26 people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. The gunman also killed his mother in her home before committing suicide.

The resumption of classes at all Newtown's schools except Sandy Hook brought a return of familiar routines, something students seemed to welcome as they arrived aboard buses festooned with large green-and-white ribbons - the colors of the stricken elementary school.

"We're going to be able to comfort each other and try and help each other get through this, because that's the only way we're going to do it," said 17-year-old P.J. Hickey, a senior at Newtown High School. "Nobody can do this alone."

Still, he noted: "There's going to be no joy in school. It really doesn't feel like Christmas anymore."

At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, back-to-back funerals were held for first-graders James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos, the third and fourth so far and the first of eight to be held in the coming days at the church. Memorial services and wakes were also held for some of the adult victims.

As mourners gathered outside, a motorcade led by police motorcycles arrived for the funeral of little James, who especially loved recess and math and who was described by his family as a "numbers guy" who couldn't wait until he was old enough to order a foot-long Subway sandwich.

The service had not concluded when mourners began arriving for the funeral of Jessica, who loved horses and was counting the years until she turned 10, when her family had promised her a horse of her own. For Christmas, she had asked Santa for new cowgirl boots and a hat.

"We are devastated, and our hearts are with the other families who are grieving as we are," her parents, Rich and Krista Rekos, said in a statement.

At a wake for 27-year-old first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, hundreds of mourners, many wearing green-and-white ribbons, stood in a line that wrapped around a funeral home in nearby Stratford.

"Big smile, great eyes, just a wonderful person," Lauren Ostrofsky said of Soto, who was killed as she tried to shield her students from the gunman. "If anyone could be an example of what a person should be today, it's her."

Tensions in the shattered community ran high as the grief of parents and townspeople collided with the crush of media reporting on the shootings and the funerals.

Police walked children to parents waiting in cars to protect them from the cameras. Many parents yelled at reporters to leave their children and the town alone.

Authorities say the horrific events of Friday began when Lanza shot his mother, Nancy, at their home, then took her car and some of her guns to the nearby school, where he broke in and opened fire, killing 20 children and six adults before shooting himself.

A Connecticut official said the mother, a gun enthusiast who practiced at shooting ranges, was found dead in her pajamas in bed, shot four times in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.

At one Newtown school on Tuesday, students found some comfort from Ronan, an Australian shepherd therapy dog from the Good Dog Foundation in New York.

Owner Lucian Lipinsky took the dog to a fifth-grade science and math class where students were having difficulty coping with the tragedy. Most started smiling immediately.

Lipinsky told the students they could whisper their secrets into Ronan's ear.

"It's pretty amazing how a lot of kids will just go whisper in his ear and tell them their secret, and, of course, he doesn't tell anyone," Lipinsky said. "He's a very good dog."

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