Return to Sandy Hook

As the documentary ‘Newtown’ opens, Nicole Hockley and her Sandy Hook Promise are training millions of Americans to prevent school murders like the one that took her young son's life

On the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012, Nicole Hockley, a 41-year-old marketing executive who had taken two years off to concentrate on settling her family (her husband Ian and two young sons) into a wholesome and unpretentious Southeastern Connecticut community, woke Jake, 8, and Dylan, 6, helped get them dressed, and packed their lunches. The delicately pretty brunette was “a happy wife and mother, a glass-half-full person,” someone who, she has said, felt appropriately grateful about her life, “shaking my head at the tragedies on the nightly news.” Dylan, her younger son, was autistic, and he had an ambivalent feeling about school, so mother and son had a countdown ritual. At the end of Monday, she would say, “Four more days of school, then two days no school”; on Tuesday, “Three more days…” and so forth. The emphasis was always on the weekend.

As she hurried the boys to the school bus, she was about to remind Dylan of the specialness of Friday with their usual verbiage. But he pre-emptively condensed the wording. “Last day school, Mommy,” he said.

“That’s right, Dylan,” she said; then, wanting to stress the happy weekend, added, “One school day, two days no school.” But somehow, as he received her kiss on his cheek and took his step onto the bus, Dylan, with an innocence too heartbreaking to be called accidental irony, felt the need to repeat his niftily shortened slogan: “Last day school, Mommy.”

An hour later, a severely troubled, once-bullied 20-year-old loner named Adam Lanza—who had retreated into a lurid world of violent video games and his mother’s arsenal of assault weapons—shot his way through a glass panel next to the locked front entrance of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he had been a student, and, using his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, laid siege upon the youngest children in his alma mater. He had already executed his mother, in her bed, with another one of her rifles.

Dylan Hockley was one of 20 6- and 7-year-olds murdered. He was shot multiple times while being held in the arms of the special education teacher, Anne Marie Murphy, who was one of six educators killed in what is now the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school—and the third-deadliest mass shooting by a single person—in U.S. history. The 26 were killed in eight minutes. Most of the children had three to 11 exploding bullets pumped into their tiny bodies at close range.

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Nicole Hockley will never forget the social workers coming to her house at 1:30 in the morning and telling her “he was one of them.” She still thought there had to be a mistake. “This just isn’t supposed to happen,” she remembers thinking of the event that made for 26 funerals—most with tiny caskets—one after another after another, sometimes two to three a day. Even viewing Dylan’s body in his casket—on her birthday—“I couldn’t accept that he was dead.” Because of his autism, they had been so close. “He needed me in a different way than Jake needed me.” To save herself emotionally, she turned from being a griever to being a griever and warrior both.

“I don’t think I can put a finger on exactly when things changed for me, but it was incredibly early on, the first week,” when Hockley decided the only path out of her unendurable pain was a mission that soon settled into an insistence on preventing more shootings by angry, bullied loners or mentally ill students, or later rejected-feeling young-woman-haters, or any other psychically wounded or twisted young men who might be on the road to becoming a school mass shooter. “Whether it was a way for dealing with my loss or a human need to stop this from happening elsewhere, I don’t know. But at Dylan’s funeral the following Friday I spoke about the change that was needed, and I didn’t even know what the change was yet,” she says, puzzling this out on the phone the other day, from Newtown, where she still lives, sharing custody of Jake, now 12. (Her marriage to Ian is over; the tragedy’s wounds cut deep.)

It is a rare day off for Hockley; she spends half of each month flying all over the country (she has led or had a hand in organizing 520 round-table discussions and countless speaking engagements, as well as fundraising) on behalf of the thriving nonprofit, Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), of which she is founder and co-managing director. Aside from the importance of the work, there’s a sad, soothing fantasy in all that traveling. “I can believe I’m coming home to Dylan. I can believe he’s still there.”

Hockley’s partners in Sandy Hook Promise are Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was also murdered that day, and Tim Makris, whose child was spared in the utter arbitrariness of the horror. “The gunman turned left,” where Dylan Hockley and Daniel Barden were, she explains. “Tim’s child was on the right.” Hockley was one of the only parents of murdered children who ventured forth to that first meeting of Newtown residents, held within a week after the shootings; most participants were merely empathic community members. The agenda: “We didn’t want Newtown to be a place of victims but, rather, a place of transformation.”

Aside from the importance of Hockley’s work for Sandy Hook Promise, there’s a sad, soothing fantasy in all her traveling. ‘I can believe I’m coming home to Dylan. I can believe he’s still there.’

Over these three and a half years SHP has, through partnerships with 450 organizations, through 50 per-diem-paid national trainers, and 1,900 volunteer trainers, grown into a prevention powerhouse that has educated and mobilized over 875,000 adults and children (that number will soon grow exponentially) in all 50 states; prevented a school shooting in Ohio as well as several student suicides; and set up two student-aimed programs, “Say Something” (through which students are taught to recognize warning signs and threats and tell a trusted adult) and “Start With Hello” (to prevent chronic social isolation, rejection and marginalization),  and two training programs, “Mental Health First Aid” and “Safety Assessment and Intervention” for parents, schools and community organizations. SHP has recently formed a three-year partnership with Miami-Dade County, the fourth-largest school district in the country (their trainers will be reaching students at 62 of that Florida county’s high schools and middle schools) and is finalizing a similar partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest, as well as venturing into Chicago and Boston and other districts next year.

Even with the candor that fuels her work, “It is hard to talk about Dylan,” Hockley admits. Jake is growing, becoming a teenager; Dylan, her darling Dylan, is frozen in time, having been robbed of virtually his entire life. She keeps a lock of Dylan’s hair and his baby teeth in a special box next to the urn in her bedroom that contains his ashes. “I kiss it every morning and every night,” she says, “and tell him that I love and miss him. Some days I can barely speak his name without breaking down, and some days I feel strong enough to speak of him in great detail.” Yet even on those latter days, the thought of him “can suddenly hit me like a truck and take me out completely. Other times, I feel he is ‘with’ me and I draw on him for strength to get me where I need to be next.”

‘I feel he [Dylan] is with me and I draw on him for strength to get me where I need to be next.’

‘I feel he [Dylan] is with me and I draw on him for strength to get me where I need to be next.’ Yvonne Albinowski for Observer

This last sentence is literal. Dylan was a “flapper”; as part of his autism, he sometimes jumped up and down and flapped his arms wildly. Once, Hockley gently asked him why he did it. He cheerfully answered, “Because I’m a beautiful butterfly.” Now she thinks of a version of the saying “The sound of a million butterflies flapping their wings is indescribable; it’s heavenly,” attributed to director and producer Louie Schwartzberg. Hockley believes that a million butterflies flapping their wings in unison can create a positive hurricane; that is what she seeks. “It’s not a matter of being Democrat or Republican,” she says of her movement. “Everybody wants their children to be safe in their schools.”

That would seem to be the case, but the National Rifle Association and its supporters in Congress are, as we know, more obdurate than virtually any other lobbying organization. Four months after the massacre, 11 families of Newtown’s tiny victims flew on Air Force One to Washington to lead 6,000 supporters in a march to support a bill for modest, reasonable background checks before gun purchase. Thanks mainly to Republicans, the bill was defeated in Congress, and the parents of the dead children were angry, incredulous and eloquent, as shown in the intimate documentary Newtown, directed by Kim A. Snyder and produced by Maria Cuomo Cole, which focuses on the community from the day of the murders forward.

The worst was yet to come: One of the most heinous responses to the tragedy was the Second Amendment fringe types becoming hoaxers and trollers and deniers, claiming that the parents had invented their dead children, that the massacre—and the children themselves—had never existed, that the parents were bad people, liars, fabricators. Google Hockley and you will see that disgusting perfidy prominently displayed. These sadists emerged early in 2013, while Hockley and the other parents (Mark Barden has also been targeted) were barely able to go an hour without weeping. “At first I spent time responding to them, ‘How on earth can you say this?! This is my son! My community!’ ” But then she realized “to give them voice was what they wanted. A couple of them have crossed the line and made real threats; they were jailed. I’ve learned to ignore them, but every once in a while they find me.”

‘It’s not a matter of being Democrat or Republican. Everybody wants their children to be safe in their schools.’

Hockley, Barden and Makris’ Sandy Hook Promise exists within an effective nexus of gun-sense organizations (many advocates prefer that term to the NRA-hackles-raising term gun control), where each group has carved out a separate, crucial niche. The biggest is Everytown for Gun Safety. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is part of Everytown, has had a hand in the passage of laws to  enact background checks, which are now in 18 states plus Washington, D.C. Funded by more than 125,00 donors including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Moms’ leader is Shannon Watts, a communications executive–turned–full-time mom who jumped into the fray immediately after Newtown. In less than four years, Watts grew a Facebook page into a powerful national movement with more than 3 million supporters. She and Moms have also—through their “stroller jams” and lobbying—have helped pass laws that keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers in more than a dozen states. They have also gotten major companies like Target and Starbucks to adopt gun-sense policies. 

There is also Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona Congresswoman who has valiantly overcome her near-fatal shooting in the head in 2011, and her husband, astronaut and Marine Mark Kelly. The group, focused on affecting elections, has an invaluable brand: making gun sense palatable to Republicans, to law-and-order types (Mark Kelly’s parents were both New Jersey police officers) and members of the military.

And then there’s the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the legacy brand, named for the late James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, who was shot in the head by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981, and his wife, the late Sarah Brady. Its signal achievement was the passage into federal law of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which made sure that gun purchasers had background checks, many of which have subsequently been made moot by internet gun sales and other modern-era loopholes. Shortly before their deaths (they died, of different causes, eight months apart from one another, in 2014 and 2015), the Bradys passed their organization on to their new friend Dan Gross, a former advertising wunderkind, whose brother, Matthew, had been a charismatic young rock musician on the brink of stardom when he was shot in the head (in the process of protecting a friend) by a lone wolf quasi-terrorist on the top of the Empire State Building in 1997. Having rehabilitated himself, with great difficulty, past his serious brain injury, he now works as a kitchen helper in a New Jersey community center, but he has adjusted to his new life with elegant equanimity.

In contrast to these other groups, Sandy Hook Promise caters to “people who don’t necessarily want to be activists—not everybody does,” says Hockley. Working on the grass-roots level, identifying and helping alienated loners and bullied kids in schools, teaching students and teachers the signs and the ways to treat or heal them is their mandate.

“There’s definitely a community here,” Hockley says. The leaders of the different groups, and others hold a joint phone call every week, intensely talking strategy. “We all know we have the same vision of saving lives, each on a different lane on the highway. The first time I met Shannon, early on in 2013, I immediately saw her as a powerhouse, a brilliant, passionate marketer. And I spent a lot of time with Gabby, who is just delightful and such a hero. She’s working on [improving] her speech but she conveys so much with her eyes and her touch. One of my favorite memories is sitting next to Gabby and Mark at a dinner at Sundance at the premiere of Newtown. I so badly wanted to make her smile, this incredible woman who’s been through so much and continues to stand so powerfully. Every time I made a little joke that made her giggle, it absolutely made my night.”

In the 18 states in which Brady Law loopholes have been recently closed, life has gotten much safer—almost 40 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners, there are nearly 50 percent fewer gun suicides and there are 48 percent fewer on-duty police officers are shot and killed.

Although prevention is Sandy Hook Promise’s mission, they were at the forefront of a potentially game-changing lawsuit: suing the gun manufacturer that made the military rifle Lanza used to kill. The Newtown parents wanted to sue Remington, the maker of Lanza’s Bushmaster, because it had authorized the marketing of a military-purposed weapon to the public in an unethical way: “Buy this to get your ‘man-card,’ ” Hockley says. “They’re targeting young men on the edge: ‘Without this weapon, you’re not a man’; feeding into the psyche of very dangerous, irresponsible gun ownership.” Hockley and the others felt passionately about attempting this unusual lawsuit. Lawyer after lawyer said it wouldn’t work. “And then we found one, Josh Koskoff, who thought, ‘This is a righteous cause.’ And he and his team were just remarkable, focusing on this aspect of ‘negligent entrustment’ by the gun manufacturer.” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy went further, saying it was time to overturn the 2005 immunity for gun manufacturers. Last summer, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis upheld Sandy Hook’s lawsuit, but just the other week, Judge Bellis threw out the case, claiming that it did not satisfy the exception under either the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act or its state analogue, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.

“I am a forever optimist,” Hockley says; the groups are appealing the decision. The case “goes to the Connecticut Supreme Court—and that court can set precedent; they can look at it through a different perspective than Judge Bellis did.”

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There are those who think that gun sense will forever be one of the hardest uphill fights of any social issues cause—even the most conservative-seeming safeguards (like banning, or merely putting restrictions on, gun purchase by people on federal terrorism no-fly lists) have been instantly shot down by Republicans, and right after gun massacres (Orlando, this past summer) that proved they could have made a difference. Yet people like Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents Newtown, believe the gun-sense movement has reached a tipping point. Consider, for example, these figures: In the 18 states in which Brady Law loopholes have been recently closed, life has gotten much safer—almost 40 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners, there are nearly 50 percent fewer gun suicides and there are 48 percent fewer on-duty police officers are shot and killed. How long can such dramatic safety figures go unnoticed and un-acted upon?

At a luncheon at Le Cirque hosted by John Slattery, Mariska Hargitay and Julianna Margulies to celebrate the release of the documentary Newtown. Producer Cuomo Cole spoke of the impact she hopes the film will make, especially in “redder” communities than Manhattan. On November 2, it will be released in 500 Regal and AMC theaters nationwide. I had hoped to meet Hockley at the luncheon, but her schedule kept her from attending—she’d just flown in from Seattle the night before and was packing for a trip to Louisiana, telling both communities that they can prevent another Sandy Hook. But Mark Barden was there and said what everyone in the room felt: “Gun control should be a widely accepted social movement. Like marriage equality, like safe sex, like designated drivers.”

That is a hope—and perhaps a possibility. And Hockley is holding fast to it. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that, for all she is accomplishing, “every day it’s like taking my heart out and putting it back in in tatters. And then waking up in the morning and doing it all over again.” 

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To learn more about Sandy Hook Promise click on www.SandyHookPromise.org

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