It’s taken me a few days to write this. Regular readers know I’m usually not lacking for words. Whether they like them or not is another matter.
But this one is different. What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School hit close to home in more ways than one.
I recently completed twelve years of service growing and leading a Christian school of over 400 students. I served as the Principal for many years until stepping away just a few months ago to pursue God’s call in a new direction. So the hugs are still fresh. Even when I go back there for visits now, I make sure to swing by those lower elementary rooms just to snag a few of those unconditionaly welcoming hugs. They make anyone feel like a celebrity.
So when I think about what happened in Sandy Hook, I easily put the names and faces — and hugs — of Kindergartners in my mind’s scenario. And it is all too real.
I thought of such scenarios often as a principal, trying not to dwell on them for too long. Just enough to ensure we were as ready as we could be for what, admittedly, was not likely to ever happen. Not likely. But not impossible.
At Home in Chardon
There’s another reason what happened at Sandy Hook in Newtown moved me to somber reflection. I live in Chardon, Ohio. On February 27, 2012, a little after 8 AM, I heard the first report that there had been a shooting at Chardon High School, not far from my home. I wasn’t there at the time because I was entrusted with the safety of 400 other kids at our school.
I knew a lot of our students knew a lot of Chardon students. Intital reports were chaotic at best. I used Twitter, in fact, to get the best overview of the events on the ground. We went into lockdown mode at our perimeter, but chose not to disturb the students. I left that to parents to do as they saw fit. We prayed. We watched. And waited.
It wasn’t long before we had official reports confirmed by local police that the alleged shooter was in custody.
Over the next few days and weeks, we dealt with a lot of stuff here in our hometown of Chardon, a quintessential piece of small-town America. Several students of ours knew the three victims who had died. Others were friends with the shooter and his family. Still others were friends of both.
We heard stories of tremendous pain and greiving and of incredible hope and miraculous deliverance. Heroic teachers and coaches rushed in. Pastors and youth leaders went into motion immediately and stayed that way 24/7 for weeks on end. [I posted here on How to Prepare for a Crisis: Ministry Lessons from the Chardon Shooting.]
I’ll never forget the candlelight service at which Gov. Kasich and school officials spoke. We couldn’t get anywhere near the doors, but our kids stood on the back of an ambulance to view the giant screens over the heads of the crowd. It was cold. Chardon in February usually is. We sang together. We prayed together. And cried together.
And then we began to heal together. The countless red commemorative ribbons can still be seen around town. They’re a little faded now, but not forgotten. And I see shooting victim Nick Walczak in WalMart from time to time. He’s in a wheelchair now though always surrounded by friends.
The Oppressive Sadness of Tragedy
So what happened in Sandy Hook and Newtown has given me pause. It’s made me, in a word, sad.
In some ways, I feel as I did when I heard other tragic news more than a decade ago. A sixteen-year-old girl, a student in my freshman English class, died unexpectedly of heart failure over Spring Break. As it turned out, her death was the result of a genetic defect that no one knew about until day. In an instant, she was gone. And our school grieved.
I recall the first day back to class. We didn’t have much of a class. I remember I cried a lot. I remember thinking that crying was definitely not cool for a young teacher. But I remember not caring. I remember most the fact that I couldn’t remember the last words I had spoken to her. I made sure to always say good-bye to every student I could after that. Just in case.
Put all of those experiences together and, yes, I have a lot I want to say about the shooting, about a lot of the hysteria in the media, about some long-range cultural implications that I haven’t heard discussed elsewhere, and even some practical solutions I’d like to propose that could both protect kids and stengthen school security.
I’ve waited to share any of it because I’ve lived through a similar tragedy both as a citizen of the affected town and as a school adminstrator. Respect for the dead and grieving required it. And I needed time. To pray. To process. To try to get past the oppressive sadness that such evil leaves behind.
So I will share my thoughts in the coming days, albeit somewhat reluctantly. But I thought it important to first share my heart and why I’m only now summoning the strength to go there.
My Prayer for Sandy Hook
But let me begin with a prayer for Sandy Hook, Newtown and Chardon that I pray will move you to continue to pray, as well:
God of peace, I confess to not understanding how such evil can possibly result in any good. And yet I choose to believe when you say that all things, — yes, even horrific tragedy — are working together for good.
You know a little about losing a child to tragedy. I pray for comfort and peace for the parents, siblings, families, and friends of all the children who perished at the hand of a vicious murderer. I pray for their healing in the weeks, months, and years ahead. I pray for the marriages that will be strained, the children who will be scarred, and the families who will need to find some way to go on.
I confess that I feel angry. Very angry. I confess that part of me wishes I had been there, wishes I had been able to pull one trigger before that man pulled any. I know you hate those who shed innocent blood and that those who mess with kids mess with you. I’ll trust that you’ve got that covered.
I pray for the teachers — I love teachers and know you do too. I ask for courage for them to continue in the path to which you’ve called them. I ask for comfort. I ask that you would send leadership to that school in the now sudden departure of their principal, leadership that will be wise, caring, and sacrificial. And I pray for the families of Principal Dawn HochSprung and of the other five adults who gave their lives in the line of duty that day.
God, I pray for those who will be asked to restore the physical building to a state of use. It’s a daunting task emotionally and one that haunted those who performed that duty here in Chardon. I pray for mercy on all of them and all others related to this painful event.
Soon the media lights will leave and this school and town will be left to begin to heal. I pray that process would be driven by hope and not by fear. I pray that you would frustrate those attempting to hijack this tragedy for political points. May our nation not give in to a spirit of irrational fear. May you override our sincere passions where needed, direct our righteous anger, channel it into doing good both for those grieving and for children in the future.
And finally, heavenly Father, please continue to hold our friends and neighbors here in Chardon close to your heart, especially as we enter the Christmas season. May the message of Christmas ring loud and clear that Jesus came that oppression will ultimately cease and peace be restored between God and man.
May you cause unspeakable good to come from such horrific evil. May your will be done on earth, and especially in Sandy Hook, Newtown, and right here in Chardon, as it is in heaven.