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Questions haunt teacher in US shooting's aftermath

Published on Dec 17, 2012 7:01 AM
A parishioner pays her respect at makeshift altar to the victims of an elementary school shooting after attending Sunday's Mass at St Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut, December 16, 2012. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEWTOWN, Connecticut (AFP) - Mr Andy Via lives in Newtown, and he knows Sandy Hook Elementary School very well - it's where, for four seasons, he's been coaching the local Little League baseball team.

The tranquility and good-neighbourliness of this New England town of 27,500 - and especially its affluent Sandy Hook section with its cosy cafes and bubbling creek - is why he moved here more than a decade ago to raise his family.

"I don't ever want to leave this town," Mr Via, 44, who retains the distinctive accent of his native Brooklyn, said on Sunday.

But every working day, Mr Via commutes to New York, about 90 minutes away, where he teaches mathematics at Mount Saint Michael Academy, a private Roman Catholic boys' school in the Baychester district of the Bronx.

And when he begins class, by force of habit, he locks the classroom door, just in case, to deter any potential gunman like the one who killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday.

"The door knob is always locked," he said. "The. Door. Knob. Is. Always.
Locked. Just imagine how many seconds it would take (in an emergency) to take the keys out of your pocket, turn the door knob and then lock it."

"It's better to have it locked and not need to lock it," added Mr Via, the father of three young boys. "You just never know."

Locking the classroom door, and keeping his students safe, was among many things running through Via's mind Sunday - nine days before Christmas - as he paid a solemn visit to the driveway leading to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Twenty first grade students in two classrooms were among the dead, as well as the school principal and five other staff members, in one of the worst mass shootings in US history.

Mr Via's youngest son, who is six years old, might have been in one of those classes but for the fact that his home is situated just a few yards outside the Sandy Hook Elementary School zone.

Wearing a grey Newtown hoodie in a cold drizzle, Mr Via pondered the line of 26 Christmas trees that went up overnight at the school entrance, one tree for each of the dead, each festooned with teddy bears.

"The stories that you've seen in Columbine (1999) and Jonesboro (1998) and the theatre (in Colorado earlier this year) where people were just trying to enjoy their Batman movie - it's here now," he told AFP, referencing previous gun-related rampages.

So why do such mass shootings happen so often in the United States? "I don't know," he said. "I wish I had the answer why ... We have a free country and people are free to do wonderfully good things - and people are free to do something like this." Mr Via owns no guns, though his wife has been pushing him to buy one.

"I thought about it," he said. "I thought about it after 9/11. I thought about it after this. I still don't know. Me owning one would probably only make a difference if somebody tried to break into my home."

Down the hill from the school, Daniel Gregg, who spent 23 years with Connecticut's department of education, paused with flowers in hand by a pair of Christmas trees surrounded by memorial candles and more teddy bears.

He disagreed with many Americans who feel school shootings can be countered with tougher security. "That's not the answer," he said. "There's plenty of security. What do we do, put fences and gates around our schools?" "The solution, to me, has to do with our own problem with guns," he added.

"We have a constitution that is very specific on this ... but there's also such a thing called common sense and safety - and we've gotten way out of hand on this, just way out of hand." Mr Gregg continued: "We are concerned about safety in every other category of everything in this society. In this one, we're not."

These days, Mr Gregg oversees international programmes for the Connecticut Association of Schools, a job that puts him in regular contact with fellow educators from Asia and other parts of the world.

"I can tell you, some of the comments I get from China, from South Korea, from many countries, is: 'Why do you have guns?'," he said. "It almost makes us feel like we're uncivilised, and that's a shame."