Michelle Franzen and Tara Gimbel / ABC News
(NEW YORK) — In Watertown, Connecticut, you can hear the squeak of a swing’s chain as it glides back and forth, along with the laughter of children at play. They are sounds that harken back to the simpler and sweeter moments of childhood.
This playground has special significance. It was built in honor of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the former principal of Sandy Hook Elementary. She was one of the five school faculty members and 20 first and second grade students shot and killed in December 2012, when a former student stormed the building.
Bill Lavin heads up the construction of the playgrounds for the charitable organization Where Angels Play. “This is the final of the 26 playgrounds that we did, and this was dedicated to really all of the children and the teachers, but in particular, Dawn Hochsprung,” he said. “This is celebrating Dawn’s life and her love of teaching.
Lavin calls it the flagship of the project, which includes playgrounds throughout Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Each one reflects the personalities, passions and lives of those who died. “So you’ll see that here there’s 20 swings that represent — for us, anyway — the special number of the children.” Six other toys represent the educators who were killed.
He says the idea grew out of an effort by the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association to provide support for families after 9/11 and then Superstorm Sandy. When the Sandy Hook shootings happened, Lavin said he had to act and the victims’ families united behind the project.
“So we made sure that this was their project, and that they would honor and find a way to express how these beautiful children lived, rather than how they left us,” Lavin said.
Carlos Soto helped build some of the playgrounds, including one in memory of his daughter, in nearby Stratford, Connecticut. Victoria Soto was the Sandy Hook teacher who died shielding her students.
“She always told us that she wanted to be special, different than other teachers,” he said. “And that made us very happy with that, knowing that she was helping other kids.”
Soto, along with other parents, children and colleagues, are left to cope with the loss each day. He’s working to support others affected by gun violence.
“I think that my daughter has given me that tool to help other parents that have lost kids,” he said. But he also said the inaction by lawmakers on gun violence following Sandy Hook is painful for him and his family.
What has changed?
A generation of K-12 students have grown up in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting preparing for the possibility of a shooting at their school, even if they don’t know it.
In a kindergarten classroom in New Jersey, 6-year-old Liam and his classmates practiced a drill they have yet to learn the significance of, an active shooter lockdown drill. They were told the intruder was an animal. He recalled to his mom Tara Gimbel, an ABC News producer, “We had to go down and hide under our desks and we pretended there was a bear.”
Hannah Jack, who’s 19, calls this the new normal. “That was life at that point it didn’t even dawn on me that it would be any different.”
Jack was in 5th grade in Watertown, Connecticut, when the Sandy Hook shooting happened. “I could see the pain in their face and how scared they were when the alarms went off and it scared me too, you know?”
John Woodrow Cox, the author of “Children Under Fire: an American Crisis,” estimates that during a single school year, 4 to 8 million kids experience lockdowns. He says even false alarms are leaving their mark.
“A meaningful number of that, four to eight million kids thought, at least momentarily, that they might get shot to death in their school. And we know that because they text their parents goodbye, they write wills saying who they want their toys to go. They soil themselves. They weep,” Cox said. “And none of those kids –- right? — none of those kids actually saw a school shooting. They didn’t get shot at. They didn’t see someone get shot. It was the threat of it that was so terrifying. And it’s terrifying because they know about Parkland, they know about Columbine, they know about all these other school shootings.”
Even in the safety of homes, children are getting their hands on the guns, hurting others or themselves. According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 3,700 children and teens died or were injured in gun incidents in 2019.
Cox says the ripple effect of gun violence is far-reaching and long-lasting. “The reality of America, is that gun violence, there’s 400 million-plus guns in this country. Gun violence can affect a family or a child’s life at any time, regardless of the community that they’re in,” he said.
Cox points to other countries whose gun-fatalities numbers are far lower than ours. “There is no evidence that Americans are more evil than people in Australia or England or Canada or anywhere else,” he said. “The difference is anybody who wants to get a gun in this country at this moment, it’s not that hard.”
Back at the playground in Watertown, Lavin says the families of Sandy Hook victims want to move beyond politics and find common ground.
“You know, we should be able to figure it out,” he said. “And I think that’s what their hope is. Not that they want, you know, their children to be poster children, but maybe to prevent another family from going through what they had to experience.”
Soto says, on the bad days, he goes to his daughter’s playground. “They ask me, ‘Carlos, how can you do it?’ I say it’s not easy, but it’s not hard. And I sit there watching the kids play, and enjoying it, and that gives me more relief. And it gives me peace.”
This story is part of the series Gun Violence in America by ABC News Radio. Each day this week we’re exploring a different topic, from what we mean when we say “gun violence” – it’s not just mass shootings – to what can be done about it. You can hear an extended version of each report as an episode of the ABC News Radio Specials podcast. Subscribe and listen on any of the following podcast apps:
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