At Hartford Public High School, Tears And Tributes Over Newtown Tragedy

Teachers wept Monday morning before their students arrived at Hartford Public High School's Law and Government Academy.

Principal Adam Johnson convened his faculty for an emergency staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. They discussed a peace pledge and resolved to listen, even abandon their day's lesson plans if students just needed to talk.

"We are all suffering," stated the first bullet point of the meeting notes, "but today we need to put the kids first."

Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, the 6-year-old niece of Assistant Principal Taina Amaro, was among the young victims in Friday's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

"Our hearts are broken for her family," said Cathy Horton, the school's theme and instructional coach. She paused as her eyes welled up. "I'm going to cry again."

"It's OK, you need to," said Amanda Mihaly, a school social worker.

Students processed the news at different paces, often depending on grade level, teachers said. There were teenagers with knowledge of the most graphic details released in news reports, and a few were seen crying openly on Monday.

Yahaira Escribano, 16, recalled getting a text message from her sister during pre-calculus class Friday about a shooting in Newtown. Later, word trickled out that Amaro had left school because both her niece and nephew attend Sandy Hook Elementary. Before the school day was over, staff members heard from Amaro that Ana had died.

"I just broke down," said Escribano, a junior. "Like, these are innocent children. ... I'm still in shock. I haven't been able to sleep."

"What makes you do that?" Ivan Torres, a 17-year-old junior, asked schoolmates in the hallway before lunch. "What makes you wake up in the morning and shoot your mom? ... What gives you motive?"

Students have been asking about their own security in school, Mihaly said.

"For kids that have so much lack of safety anyway" — in Hartford — "it's really hard," she said. "School was a safe haven."

During classes Monday morning, several girls were allowed to create black-and-hot-pink ribbons for staff and students to wear in honor of Ana. Johnson bought the materials on Sunday; pink was chosen because Amaro told colleagues that Ana liked all things bright and sparkly. Amaro was absent from work Monday but regularly phoned in.

Students also helped tape white poster paper on walls in the cafeteria and hallways for classmates to draw or write messages of support. On one banner, titled "Dear Ms. Amaro...," Escribano wrote, "Words cannot begin to explain how sorry I am for your loss."

On Saturday, Ana's family released ahomevideo of the little girl singing "Come Thou Almighty King" as her older brother, third-grader Isaiah, played the piano. (Isaiah was not injured in Friday's attack.) Ana's parents are Jimmy Greene, a jazz saxophonist, and Nelba Marquez-Greene, a marriage and family therapist. Both have strong ties to Hartford.

Amaro recorded her own video for Law and Government Academy staff and students Sunday night. Johnson shared the video's online link with colleagues and students, and on Monday, two ninth-grade girls watched the message on a school computer in silence.

"We want you to remember the victims," Amaro tells the camera. Not the shooter, she said.

"Spread the message of love and joy. We were blessed to have Ana Grace for us, in our lives, for six-and-a-half-and-three-quarter years, which is what she would say," Amaro said with a smile.

"We want you to remember that the shooter is not just a person who was an evil or bad person. That's an oversimplification. This is someone who made a very bad decision, and there were probably many things that happened before that decision in terms of how he was living his life and how he was treated."

"And I say that because I want you to think about how we treat people," Amaro continued. "And whether we're kind, and whether we're compassionate and whether we use language that shows love and support for people, even people who we don't necessarily like. ... We're asking that if you are feeling moved to do something, that you pledge to live your life in a way that is positive and peaceful."

Students had the option Monday of signing the academy's new peace contract, pledging to build a culture in which "violence is not inevitable."

The specter of violence still seeped into Horton's mind. The instructional coach noticed that the people crying the hardest at her church during Sunday services were fellow teachers in pain over the Newtown attacks.

As a mother, Horton said, she worried about her own two children who attend West Hartford schools. "I'm thinking what every parent is thinking — 'I hope my kid is safe today,'" she said. "And my kids are thinking the same thing about me."

"I hope my mom is safe."

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