Back to school: the right medicine for Sandy Hook, experts say

Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
A Sandy Hook Elementry student flashes a sign as children leave on a school bus in Newtown, Connecticut January 3, 2013. Counselors say getting back to a routine is the best medicine for the surviving students.

Getting Sandy Hook’s children back to school on Thursday was one of the most important steps for healing their trauma, as well as getting their parents and the community back on track, mental health experts say. But the whole community will be immersed in mental health support for the foreseeable future.

More than 400 students from the school started back after their winter holiday, their first time back in class since Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 first-graders, six staffers,, his mother and himself with a semi-automatic rifle Dec. 14.

With their school building in Newtown still closed for a criminal investigation, an unused middle school in nearby Monroe was painted and refurbished for them. The kids rode yellow school buses to the new school, and that’s important therapy, says Katey Smith, who heads the trauma response team at The Center of Hope, a nonprofit family support center in nearby Greenwich, Ct. that’s helped in ounseling affected families in Newtown.

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    Image: Victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are seen on artificial roses at a roadside memorial.

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    A nation mourns after the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history left 20 children and six staff members dead at Sandy Hook Elementary.

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    A school bus stops in front of 26 angels along the roadside as it travels from Newtown, Conn., to Monroe on the first day of classes for Sandy Hook Elementary School students since the Dec. 14 shooting. Chalk Hill School in Monroe was overhauled especially for the students from the Sandy Hook School shooting.

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    The new Sandy Hook Elementary is seen on the Jan. 3 on the first day of school for students and teacher who survived the Dec. 14 shooting. The school, formerly known as Chalk Hill, was overhauled especially for the students in the neighboring town of Monroe, Conn.

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    A parent greets her child as she gets off a school bus returning from the first day of classes at the new Sandy Hook School on Jan. 3.

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    Greg Gnandt and Guy Veneruso work on the installation of 26 stars on the roof of the Sandy Hook fire station on Jan. 1 in Newtown, Conn. The stars were made and installed by a group of local contractors, led by Gnandt, to honor the memory of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

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    Families from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. are on the field before the game between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 30, in East Rutherford, N.J.

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    A boy waits to enter Honan Funeral Home, where the family of six-year-old Jack Pinto was holding his funeral service, in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 17.

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    Visitors hang a sign on a light pole along a road leading to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 26.

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    People at the Blue Colony diner observe a moment of silence for victims of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 21.

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    Sandy Hook Village firefighters observe a moment of silence near Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 21. Many Americans remembered the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre with a moment of silence on Friday, as a powerful U.S. gun rights lobbying group prepared to plunge into the national debate over gun control.

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    Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy stands with other officials to observe a moment of silence while bells ring 26 times in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 21, in honor of the victims who were killed last Friday during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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    A boy sits near the steps of a church a church before the memorial service for Lauren Rousseau in Danbury, Conn., on Dec. 20.

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    Comfort dogs Libby and Cali receive attention from two women near a memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 20.

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    A portrait of Benjamin Andrew Wheeler, one of the students killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last week, stands outside of Trinity Episcopal Church as two men embrace each other before his funeral services, on Dec. 20, in Newtown, Conn.

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    The casket of teacher Anne Marie Murphy, who was killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., is lifted from St. Mary Of The Assumption Church after a funeral service in Katonah, N.Y., on Dec. 20.

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    A police officer puts his hands together and bows his head before the funeral for 6-year-old shooting victim Catherine Hubbard at Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 20.

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    A number 6 balloon left for one of the 6-year-old victims of the Dec. 14 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school hangs in a makeshift memorial outside the school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 19.

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    Firefighters salute as a hearse passes for the funeral procession of 7-year-old shooting victim Daniel Gerard Barden, on Dec. 19, in Newtown, Conn.

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    A motorist holds an obituary for shooting victim Daniel Barden along Church Hill Road in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 19.

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    Mike Garbowski of Newtown, Conn., begins to erect a fence he built on Dec. 19 that will bear the names of all of those killed in the Dec. 14 shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

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    A police honor guard arrives for funeral services for teacher Victoria Soto, 27, at the Lordship Community Church on Dec. 19, in Stratford, Conn. The first grade teacher reportedly died while trying to protect her students during last Friday's shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

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    A casket carrying the body of teacher Victoria Soto, 27, arrives to the Lordship Community Church on Dec. 19, in Stratford, Conn.

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    A family awaits the beginning of funeral services for teacher Victoria Soto, 27, at the Lordship Community Church on Dec. 19, in Stratford, Conn.

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    A view of the Newtown Meetinghouse and Trinity Episcopal Church as Main Street's flag flies at half-staff on Dec. 18, in Newtown, Conn. Newtown continues to mourn the loss of 20 students and 6 adults from last Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School with a second day of funerals.

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    Rachel Berger and Greta Waag embrace while visiting a makeshift memorial for shooting victims on Dec. 18, in Newtown, Conn. Funeral services were held in Newtown Tuesday for Jessica Rekos and James Mattioli, both age six, four days after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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    A woman lights candles at a makeshift memorial near the entrance to the grounds of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 18, in Newtown, Conn.

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    Mourners line the road to watch the hearse containing the body of Sandy Hook Elementary School student James Mattioli, 6, drive past on the way to a cemetery in Darien, Conn., on Dec. 18.

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    Students return to Hawley Elementary School on Dec. 18, in Newtown, Conn., the first day of classes since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary Schoool.

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    Easton police officer J. Sollazzo greets parents and students returning to Hawley Elementary School on Dec. 18, in Newtown, Conn.

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    Easton police officer J. Sollazzo greets parents and students returning to Hawley Elementary School on Dec. 18, in Newtown, Conn.

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    A student pauses after placing flowers at a memorial at the entrance to Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 18.

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    The casket of James Mattioli, 6 leaves Saint Rose of Lima Church as mourners gather on Dec. 18 in Newtown, Conn. after his funeral.

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    Police outside the home of Nancy Lanza on Dec. 18 in Newtown, Conn. Nancy Lanza was killed by her son Adam before going on his rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

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    A man pays respects near a U.S. flag with the names of victims on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., on Monday, Dec. 17, as the town mourns victims killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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    Zong Yang Tan, right, and Guan Fu Jiang light candles at the makeshift memorial in the center of Sandy Hook village on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. Tan, a native of China who works for a car service in New York City, says he thinks "the U.S. government must control the guns."

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    Mourners embrace as they leave the Honan Funeral Home, where the family of 6-year-old Jack Pinto was holding his funeral service, in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 17. Pinto was one of the 20 students killed in the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

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    A boy cries with his father beside him at the funeral for Jack Pinto, 6, in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 17. Funerals began Monday in the little Connecticut town for the 20 children and six staff members killed at Sand Hook Elementary School.

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    A florist delivers funeral bouquets for the funeral of Noah Pozner, 6, at the Abraham L. Green and Son Funeral Home in Fairfield, Conn., on Dec. 17.

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    Teddy bears with the names of some of the victims of the elementary school shooting, at a makeshift shrine to the victims in Newtown on Dec. 17.

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    Stuffed animals and a sign calling for prayer rest at the base of a tree near the Newtown VIllage Cemetery on Dec. 17.

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    Kanga Kanh, left, and Channary Pich prepare to place 26 balloons at a makeshift memorial at the entrance to Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 17. The pair, "like sisters," from North Haven, Conn., and Bronx, N.Y., wrote the victims' names on each balloon. Kanh, who has two children, ages 7 and 4, said: "Every day I do fear for my son when he's in school too."

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    People hold hands in a bar near Sandy Hook Elementary School as President Barack Obama speaks in Newtown on Dec.16.

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    Mourners comfort one another before President Barack Obama speaks Dec. 16 at an interfaith vigil at Newtown High School for the shooting victims.

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    Newtown residents Claire Swanson, Kate Suba, Jaden Albrecht and Simran Chand and New London, Conn., residents Rachel Pullen and her son Landon DeCecco hold candles at a Dec. 16 memorial for victims on the first Sunday following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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    People arrive on a school bus at Newtown High School for a Dec. 16 memorial vigil attended by President Barack Obama for the shooting victims.

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    A man hugs his daughter while visiting a memorial to the victims in Sandy Hook Village in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16.

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    Danbury residents Maria Romero, her two daughters, Elizabeth and Jelsey, and the girls' aunt Carmen Cohen (left to right, center) embrace at memorial in the center of the village of Sandy Hook on Dec. 16.

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    Eric Mueller places wooden painted angels outside his home in Newtown, Dec. 16.

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    A woman gets down on her knees and weeps at a makeshift memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dec. 16.

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    Parishioners pay their respects to the victims while arriving for mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Dec. 16.

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    A Connecticut State Police officer stands at an intersection in Newtown, Dec. 16.

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    Shaila Tucker, from New Haven, Conn., leaves a flower at a memorial set up in Sandy Hook for the victims of the shooting on Dec. 15.

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    Robbie Parker, the father of 6-year-old Emilie Parker, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, fights back tears as he speaks during a news conference Dec. 15 in Newtown.

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    Residents grieve after leaving flowers for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 15.

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    Mourners attend a prayer service at St. John's Episcopal Church on Dec. 15.

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    Andrea Jaeger on Dec. 15 places flowers and a candle at a makeshift memorial outside the firehouse that was used as a staging area for families following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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    A man hangs a sign on the front of his home near Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 15.

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    Mourners approach the makeshift memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 15.

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    Sandy Hook Elementary School library clerk Mary Ann Jacob speaks to the press in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15. Squeezed into a library storage room with 18 crying and confused fourth-graders, Jacob said she thought it appropriate to tell a lie in the interest of survival. "We told them it was a drill, so they knew what to do," Jacob told reporters.

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    Ken Kowalsky and his daughter Rebecca, 13, embrace while standing at the end of the road leading to Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 15.

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    Mourners place flowers at the entrance of Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 15.

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    A flag in downtown Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15 is tagged with numbers representing each of the school shooting victims.

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    Pakistani children light candles in Karachi to pay tribute to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims.

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    Mourners gather inside the Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church Dec. 14 at a vigil service for victims.

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    An American flag at the center of Newtown, Conn., stands at half-staff on Dec. 14. President Barack Obama ordered flags be flown at half-staff through sunset on Dec. 18.

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    President Barack Obama wipes a tear as he speaks about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., during a press briefing in Washington D.C., on Dec. 14. We have to "come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics," he said.

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    Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

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    People gather outside a firehouse near the Sandy Hook Elementary School after the shooting on Dec. 14.

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    Family members embrace outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., after the shooting on Dec. 14.

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    Parents pick up their children after a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

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    State police personnel lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., after the shooting there on Dec. 14.

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    A police officer leads two women and a child from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children on Dec. 14.

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“I think it’s huge,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “We always tell people that trying to get back to a normal routine is so important.”

Thalia Anderen, a counselor at Center of Hope, says getting back to routines helps both parents and kids. “The longer they wait, the harder it will be to get back,” Anderen said.

They would have been prepared for heavy security at the new school. Assuring parents and children alike that the new school is safe is a key part of the mental health support they need, Smith and Anderen said. Police officers, therapy dogs and counselors were at the new school in Monroe on Thursday, but there were some other extras, too. Parents were allowed to stay in the building for the day.

“You have to make sure that the kids think everything will be fine,” Andersen said.

Nearby streets were decorated with balloons and welcome signs.

“Most of the kids were excited,” said Monroe, Conn., Police Lt. Keith White. “We don’t want them to think this is a police state. We want them to know this is a school and a school first,” he added. “Most of the buses were full ... most of the classes were full.”

But having security as well as a little fun should have helped, the counselors said. “There definitely are going to be kids that are going to be scared and they are going to to be anxious,” Andersen said. “As a parent dropping their kid off at school, you just assume that they are going to be safe.” The shootings, she said, shook parents “to the core."

Counseling the families who were directly affected, as well as their neighbors in southern Connecticut, will be a long-term project, says Smith, who worked in Newtown last month. “Local health providers have a brand new team just to deal with Sandy Hook. They will have a permanent team there that is working with them,” she said. Children will do better in group therapy sessions, Smith said. Many of the counselors will be using the “Dougy model” pioneered by the Portland, Ore.-based Dougy Center.

Some of the DougyCenter’s guidelines include listening to children, following routines, setting limits on behavior and using clear language such as saying someone died instead of “passed away." “Do not suggest that the student has grieved long enough,” the center advises on its website. “Do not indicate that the student should get over it and move on.”

The Greenwich-based facility held sessions for families not directly affected by the shootings, also, and Smith said she was surprised at how many people turned up. “People were just desperate to talk,” she said. As for Newtown residents, they’re advising folks to keep an eye on one another.

“We just want to make sure people don’t isolate themselves,” Smith said. “People who are unsupported have a greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

While the Sandy Hook killings were an extraordinary catastrophe, Smith says most of the children are likely to recover. “A lot of people are traumatized every day. The majority of them recover,” she said. “There are a small percentage that don’t recover. That is why we are coming in.”

Skilled counselors know the signs of someone who isn’t healing, and can intervene to get those people the help they need. “With good support, good family, love, people usually recover from trauma,” Smith said.

Families were allowed to visit the Monroe school last month to see where the children would be. “If you didn’t know that this incident had happened a week earlier you would not have known,” Anderen said. The children were happy to see their friends and classmates, she said. That’s a good sign. “It is going to change them but the hope is they are going to be stronger,” Anderen said.

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