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Texas shooting leaves Sandy Hook survivors with anger, grief and a personal sense of failure

“It’s a horrible burden to bear," said a teacher in Newtown, Connecticut, who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Sandy Hook Survivors
Abbey Clements hugs her former Sandy Hook Elementary School second graders Ashley Hubner and Cyrena Arokium in Newtown, Conn., on Wednesday.Sarah Wilmer for NBC News

NEWTOWN, Conn. — As her eyes welled with tears, Abbey Clements held her former Sandy Hook second graders and apologized for a deadly school shooting nearly 2,000 miles away in Uvalde, Texas, that she had nothing to do with.

“I failed,” she told them, nearly 10 years after she pulled them into a classroom coat area and sang Christmas songs in a futile attempt to drown out the gunfire blaring from the loudspeakers. 

“I’m trying,” Clements whispered to the students, who are now 16.  “I’m so, so sorry.”

During the emotional embrace Wednesday, the students reassured Clements that there was nothing she could have done to stop an 18-year-old gunman from murdering 19 children and two teachers who were trying to protect them Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

But eerie similarities between that massacre and the Dec. 14, 2012, attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School have left multiple survivors in Connecticut with renewed anger, grief, and an overwhelming sense of personal failure that they haven’t been able to spur more change in a nation plagued by gun violence. 

“The worst part about it is that my students who ran out of Sandy Hook School and who survived the tragedy, they are watching this happen over and over,” Clements said. “My generation has let them down. It’s a horrible burden to bear.”

Sandy Hook teacher
Abbey Clements in Newtown, Conn., on Wednesday.Sarah Wilmer for NBC News

Since 2013, at least 94 people have been killed and 132 injured in 51 school shootings, according to the latest tally by NBC News, which has been tracking school shootings since 20 children and six faculty members were killed at Sandy Hook.

On Wednesday, there was an increased police presence around schools in Newtown, as parents made difficult decisions about whether to keep their children home. 

Venelope Gil, a school bus driver, was torn about sending her daughter, a kindergartener, into Sandy Hook Elementary School that morning. Along her route, she saw signs that she was not alone in her doubt. 

While shuttling other students to school, Gil nearly broke down when she saw a mother get out of her car to hug her twin second graders before they left for school. 

“She never really gets out of the car. That touched me a lot,” Gil said. “I know a lot of parents had the same fear.”

The day before, as details out of Uvalde began to emerge, parents who live and work in Newtown were coaching sports practices, attending meetings and otherwise trying to live as normal of a life as they could since their worlds came crashing down in 2012.

They would all eventually hear the news that a young, male gunman had opened fire inside an elementary school in Texas after shooting his grandmother in the face.

“It was hauntingly similar to Sandy Hook,” said Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son Dylan was killed in the 2012 attack.

When she heard the news, Hockley was in a large meeting with other leaders of her nonprofit, Sandy Hook Promise, which works to prevent gun violence. Hockley said one team member burst into tears, while she and co-founder Mark Barden, who also lost a son at Sandy Hook, braced themselves for the trauma they knew would follow.

“It brought us back to 12/14 in a more direct way than any shooting has,” Hockley said. “And every shooting does re-traumatize us and make us relive that day, but this was really far too present.”

Hockley and Barden ended the meeting early. 

Candice Bohr, who has thought about the Sandy Hook shooting every single day for the last 10 years, was coaching soccer to second and third-grade girls when she found out. 

“I was at a loss for words. It was like a punch in the gut,” said Bohr, who runs Newtown Youth and Family Services, a nonprofit that provides the town with mental health services. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Do I cry? Do I scream? Do I throw up?” 

Cyrena Arokium, who was in Clements’ second-grade class that day in 2012, said the Uvalde shooting brought her right back to the classroom coat area, where she and 17 of her classmates hid from the gunman.

She remembers asking her teacher if she could call her mother, and she has vivid details of a classmate next to her sobbing uncontrollably.

Arokium can still see Clements pulling two fourth graders into her classroom from the hallway before locking the door. She can hear Clements trying her best to tell a police dispatcher what was unfolding in a way that didn't further alarm her class.

“It feels like I relived it,” Arokium said.

Sandy Hook survivors
Ashley Hubner, left, and Cyrena Arokium in Newtown, Conn., on Wednesday. Arokium felt as though she was reliving the day she survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly 10 years ago.Sarah Wilmer for NBC News

Ashley Hubner, who was 7 when she survived Sandy Hook, felt immediate anger over the tragedy at Uvalde. She immediately noted the similarities as she read the news on her phone on the bus coming home from a softball game.

“I was like, oh my God, this was a bunch of elementary school kids. This is just like Sandy Hook,” said Hubner, 16. 

“It’s so frustrating because it’s been 10 years. It’s been over 3,000 days. There has been so much time to make changes, and for this to be prevented,” she added. "Nothing’s going to change.”

Renewed calls for action

Many gun safety advocates say things have only gotten worse in the last decade, and statistics show gun violence has increased in recent years. 

More people died from gunfire in 2020 than at any other time before, while firearm homicide rates increased by almost 35 percent from 2019, the highest level recorded in over 25 years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. The FBI said active shooter incidents in 2021 surged by more than 50 percent from 2020 and nearly 97 percent from 2017.

Hockley said she didn’t think we’d be here 10 years after Sandy Hook.

“I didn’t think we would have slid backwards,” she said. “Is there anyone left in this country who hasn’t been impacted by gun violence?”

In an address from the White House Tuesday night, President Joe Biden called on Congress to take action on gun safety legislation, urged legislators to stand up to the gun lobby, and asked Americans to push for “commonsense gun laws.”

Texas has some of the most lenient gun laws in the nation, seven of which were passed less than a year ago. But an April mass shooting in Sacramento, California, which was fueled by gang violence and left six people dead, underscored the challenges afflicting a state that already has some of the country’s toughest gun restrictions.

Survivors and families impacted by school shootings have also renewed their calls for action in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.

In a tweet, Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son died in the Parkland, Florida, shooting, told Biden he’d continue to hold the president accountable for every promise he made to him, “until you actually lead and fight for gun violence prevention.”

A community grapples with the aftermath

Arokium and Hubner are now juniors in high school, making plans to leave Newtown for the first time to go to college. They know what will come next for the Uvalde community. 

After 21 funerals in the next few days and weeks, there will be nightmares, therapy sessions and empty desks at school. There may be new practices in classrooms, such as screaming out a safe word, like “monkey,” if anyone starts to feel anxious.

There will be thoughts and prayers from lawmakers. And because not much else will likely follow, there will be years of carrying deep survivor’s guilt and a personal burden to convince those legislators to effect change.

And then, they said, there will be endless disappointment after every school shooting that follows, on top of a fear of not only suffering another incident, but surviving it and starting the cycle over.

“It’s a very specific kind of aftermath,” said Clements, who now teaches fourth grade at a different elementary school in Newtown. “It’s not just about what happened in the past. It’s that they realize what could happen, or what is happening in other places.”

The shooting will eventually become part of the town's identity, said Clements, who co-founded Teachers Unify To End Gun Violence, a nonprofit coalition of educators so that fewer schools will suffer such a fate as Sandy Hook and Robb Elementary.

“A community that endures this magnitude of tragedy, it never really goes away,” she said.