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

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

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Like graduating seniors everywhere, members of Newtown High School's class of 2024 expect bittersweet feelings at their commencement ceremony — excitement about heading off to college or careers and sadness about leaving their friends and community.

But about 60 of the 330 kids graduating Wednesday will also be carrying the emotional burden that comes from having survived one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history and knowing many former classmates won't get to walk across the stage with them. Twenty of their fellow first graders and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

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

Soon, these Sandy Hook survivors will be leaving the community that many call a "bubble" because of the comfort and protection it's provided from the outside world. Five of them sat down with The Associated Press to discuss their graduation, future plans and how the tragedy continues to shape their lives.

'They'll be there with us'

"I think we're all super excited for the day," said Lilly Wasilnak, 17, who was in a classroom down the hall from where her peers were killed. "But I think we can't forget ... that there is a whole chunk of our class missing. And so going into graduation, we all have very mixed emotions — trying to be excited for ourselves and this accomplishment that we've worked so hard for, but also those who aren't able to share it with us, who should have been able to."

Emma Ehrens was one of 11 children from Classroom 10 to survive the attack. She and other students managed to flee when the gunman paused to reload and another student, Jesse Lewis, yelled for everyone to run. Jesse didn't make it. Five kids and both teachers in the room were killed.

"I am definitely going be feeling a lot of mixed emotions," said Ehrens, 17. "I'm super excited to be, like, done with high school and moving on to the next chapter of my life. But I'm also so ... mournful, I guess, to have to be walking across that stage alone. … I like to think that they'll be there with us and walking across that stage with us."

Grace Fischer, 18, was in a classroom down the hall from the killings with Ella Seaver and Wasilnak. With only 11 days to go before Christmas, the school was in the holiday spirit and the children were looking forward to making gingerbread houses that day.

"As much as we've tried to have that normal, like, childhood and normal high school experience, it wasn't totally normal," Fischer said. "But even though we are missing ... such a big chunk of our class, like Lilly said, we are still graduating. ... We want to be those regular teenagers who walk across the stage that day and feel that, like, celebratory feeling in ourselves, knowing that we've come this far."

Leaving home and the 'bubble'

Many of the survivors said they continue to live with the trauma of that day: Loud noises still cause them to jump out of their seats, and some always keep an eye on a room's exits. Many have spent years in therapy for post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

The town provided an array of services to the families. Officials shielded them as much as they could from the media and outsiders, and the students said leaving such a protective community will be both difficult and somewhat freeing.

"In Sandy Hook, what happened is always kind of looming over us," said Matt Holden, 17, who was in a classroom down the hall from the shooting. "I think leaving and being able to make new memories and meet new people, even if we'll be more isolated away from people who have stories like us, we'll be more free to kind of write our own story. ... And kind of, you know, not let this one event that happened because we were very young define our lifetimes."

Ehrens said she feels some anxiety over leaving Newtown, but that it's a necessary step to begin the next chapter of her life.

"It definitely feels for me that we're kind of stuck in the same system that we've been stuck in for past 12 years," she said.

"For me, I feel like it's definitely going to get better and be able to break free of that system and just be able to become my own person rather than, again, the Sandy Hook kid," Ehrens said.

Fischer echoed that sentiment, saying that although it will be hard leaving the town and friends she's grown up with, she'll make new friends and build a new community as she explores new challenges at college.

"Sandy Hook will always be with me," she said.

Emma Ehrens, center, a survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, speaks as she stands with other survivors during a rally against gun violence on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Newtown, Conn.
Bryan Woolston / AP
/
AP
Emma Ehrens, center, a survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, speaks as she stands with other survivors during a rally against gun violence on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Newtown, Conn.

Tragedy spurs activism, shapes their futures

All five seniors have been active in the Junior Newtown Action Alliance and its anti-gun violence efforts, saying they want to prevent shootings from happening 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 fallen classmates have motivated their advocacy, which they all plan to continue after high school.

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

"Putting my voice out there and working with all of these amazing people to try and create change really puts a meaning to the trauma that we all were 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 get it."

Ehrens said she plans to study political science and the law, with the aim 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 push for gun policy changes.

Wasilnak, meanwhile, said she hasn't settled on a major, but that she intends to continue to speak out against gun violence.

"For me, I knew I wanted to do something more since I was younger when the tragedy first happened," Wasilnak said. "I wanted to turn such a terrible thing into something more, and that these children and educators didn't die for nothing. Of course it was awful what happened to them, and it should have never happened. But I think that for me, something bigger needed to come out of it, or else it would have been all for nothing."

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]