Newtown Native on Sandy Hook School Massacre

Monica Warek Rushed Back to Her Beloved Hometown Right After the Shooting

A memorial outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut
Monica Warek

In the wake of the horrific tragedy that unfolded Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, this reporter reached out to her college friend, Monica Warek, a Newtown native. Warek is a senior at New York University, majoring in environmental studies and minoring in psychology. She was born and raised in Connecticut and moved to Newtown when she was 2 years old. At age 4 she began her education at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She continued on to Newtown High School, where shooter Adam Lanza was also enrolled.

Warek was working in New York City the morning of the shooting. “I got an email from my mom with a link to an article about some kind of shooting that had gone on at Sandy Hook,” she remembered. “At that moment it was still early, and there weren’t any details about what exactly had gone on. They didn’t say how bad it was. We’ve had lockdowns before, little scares here and there. You hear [hunters’] gunfire going off in the distance from time to time, so I assumed it was something like that.”

But through Facebook and Twitter, Warek discovered from her friends that the situation was much more serious than she had thought. “I turned on the news at work, and on every single channel was my elementary school. And the numbers … the numbers of dead children just kept going up.”

“I have so many positive memories from that place. It just blows my mind that something that tragic could have happened there,” Warek went on. “The education system is one of the best in the state — Sandy Hook is really highly regarded for it academics and teachers.” Currently a midfielder on the NYU women’s soccer team, Warek said she got her first taste of the sport at Sandy Hook. “Everyone played soccer at Sandy Hook,” she explained. “We had this big beautiful field right next to the school where we would have scrimmages at recess. Our town is definitely known as a soccer town. It’s a big part of the culture in our community.”

Newtown is home to approximately 29,000 people. It’s an affluent and quintessentially beautiful New England town, with traditional shingled homes and white steepled chapels. There are no fast food chains, no Walmarts, no Targets; the town is made up of small, privately owned stores and restaurants. “I think one of the most devastating things that will come from this event is that the [town’s] name will now be associated with such a terrible event, and it’s not fair because this is such a beautiful town,” Warek lamented. “There’s such a strong community here, such a strong sense of family and tradition. I’ve never seen such sadness in such a beautiful place.”

Warek and several of her classmates left school and work to return home to Newtown this past weekend. “It didn’t feel right to be anywhere else,” she said. “Within 24 hours we started a fundraiser called Santas for Sandy Hook that raised $10,000 in two days for the funeral costs of the victims.” She noted that it’s the little things that mean the most right now, like bringing the Newtown police officers, who are guarding Sandy Hook 24 hours a day in 30 degree weather, doughnuts and hot coffee. The general feeling in Newtown is one of complete and utter helplessness. “I mean, what are you supposed to do when 20 kids are murdered?” Warek asked. “Nothing is going to bring those little ones back.”

Although no concrete information has been released, the general consensus around Newtown is that Sandy Hook Elementary School should be demolished and a memorial built in its place. “I don’t think anyone could fathom how the teachers and the students would be able to go back into that building knowing what happened there,” Warek explained.

“It’s scary to know that I walked around school with Adam for three years,” said Warek, who was in a grade above Lanza at Newtown High School. “I know he was very smart. I don’t know a lot about his mental illness, but I know he had one.” Warek recalled that Lanza was socially awkward, and The New York Times recently reported that he had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. “He was involved in the Tech Club with several of my friends. … My high school wasn’t a huge place — I used to see him all the time. Just this summer I was at a graduation party at the house right next to his. How terrifying is that?”

Warek was quick to point out that Newtown High was one of the most accepting places she’s ever been to. “Newtown has never been known as a mean or cliquey place,” she said. “Whatever you’re into, whether it’s sports or science, there is a group for you. The staff were always extremely supportive.”

Reporters fill a Starbucks in Newtown
Monica Warek

Every major media outlet in the country has stormed Newtown. But while residents acknowledge that investigative reporting may help prevent another mass killing in the future, they are finding it difficult to mourn with camera flashes going off at every vigil and memorial service. “It was beyond frustrating when the reporters came into church with cameras,” Warek said. “To me, that’s not a place where they should be. I understand that it’s their job and they have to ask the hard questions, so I don’t think anyone’s really mad, but it does get frustrating when you can’t look at a memorial without getting your picture taken. We need to let the families grieve their lost ones.” No reporter has spoken to any of the victims’ families. The only way to identify their homes is by the telltale state trooper parked outside.

Warek was present at Sandy Hook when President Barack Obama spoke to Newtown residents Sunday evening, “I had dance recitals on that stage,” she said. “It was crazy to see him there. … I think everyone, regardless of their politics, appreciated his presence. He did a beautiful job. We all appreciate him saying that something needs to be done.” In the aftermath of such brutality, such senseless and horrific cruelty, it appears the residents of Newtown are finding solace in the President’s vow to make a change and find an effective solution to ending these massacres. “If this can happen in Newtown, beautiful Newtown, it can happen anywhere,” said Warek.

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