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School starts at new building for Sandy Hook kids

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 2:14 p.m. MDT

A sign for Chalk Hill School is seen in Monroe, Conn., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.  School resumes Wednesday for students in Newtown, Conn., except for the Sandy Hook Elementary School students, who will begin classes on Thursday at Chalk Hill School.  The school was overhauled specially for them in the neighboring town of Monroe, Conn.  (Jessica Hill, Associated Press) A sign for Chalk Hill School is seen in Monroe, Conn., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. School resumes Wednesday for students in Newtown, Conn., except for the Sandy Hook Elementary School students, who will begin classes on Thursday at Chalk Hill School. The school was overhauled specially for them in the neighboring town of Monroe, Conn. (Jessica Hill, Associated Press)

MONROE, Conn. — For her son's first day of school since last month's massacre at his Sandy Hook Elementary, Sarah Caron tried to make Thursday as normal as possible. She made his favorite pancakes, and she walked the second-grader to the top of the driveway for the school bus.

But it was harder than usual to say goodbye.

"I hugged him a lot longer than normal, until he said, 'Mommy, please,'" she said. "And then he got on the bus, and he was OK."

Her 7-year-old son, William, was among more than 400 students who escaped a gunman's rampage that killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14. On Thursday, the returning students settled in at their old, familiar desks but in a different school in a different town.

Children board a bus on the first day of classes after the holiday break, in Newtown, Conn., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. (Associated Press) Children board a bus on the first day of classes after the holiday break, in Newtown, Conn., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. (Associated Press)

Returning students, teachers and administrators were met by a large police presence outside their new school in the neighboring town of Monroe, where a middle school that had been shuttered for nearly two years was overhauled and renamed after their old school. Several officers guarded the entrance and checked IDs of parents dropping off children.

Monroe police Lt. Keith White said attendance was very good and the children were getting back to "business as usual."

"A lot of them were happy to see their friends they hadn't seen in a while," he said.

William's classroom had been across the hall from a first-grade room where children and teacher Victoria Soto died, and he had been nervous about going back to school, Caron said. But an open house Wednesday at the school eased some of his fears.

Chalk Hill School is seen in Monroe, Conn., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.  The Sandy Hook Elementary School students fron Newtown, Conn.,  will begin classes on Thursday at Chalk Hill School.  The school was overhauled specially for them in the neighboring town of Monroe, Conn.  (Jessica Hill, Associated Press) Chalk Hill School is seen in Monroe, Conn., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. The Sandy Hook Elementary School students fron Newtown, Conn., will begin classes on Thursday at Chalk Hill School. The school was overhauled specially for them in the neighboring town of Monroe, Conn. (Jessica Hill, Associated Press)

"They didn't talk about what happened at all," she said. "They went in, met up with their teachers, had a little circle time and it was just about trying to get them back into school."

Most of the students arrived at the new school in Monroe by bus, something school officials had suggested to help them get back into a familiar routine. Other parents arrived separately.

About 80 parents attended an assembly Thursday with school and police officials, who fielded questions about security and activities planned for their children. White said security will remain at a high level for now and will be re-evaluated each week.

The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, shot and killed his mother inside their Newtown home before driving to the school. He shot his way into the building and carried out the massacre before committing suicide as police arrived.

In this Dec. 18, 2012 file photo, a school bus rolls toward a memorial in Newtown, Conn., for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.  (Associated Press) In this Dec. 18, 2012 file photo, a school bus rolls toward a memorial in Newtown, Conn., for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. (Associated Press)

On Tuesday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced the creation of an advisory commission that will review and recommend changes to state laws and policies on gun control, school safety measures and mental health services in the wake of the Sandy Hook rampage.

Teams of workers, many of them volunteers, prepared the new school and even raised bathroom floors so the smaller elementary school students can reach the toilets. The students' backpacks and other belongings that were left behind after the shooting were taken to the new school to make them feel at home.

Students found the same chairs and desks, when possible. Their classroom walls were painted the same colors and hung with the same pictures. Other details, such as the location of bookshelves and cubby holes, were replicated as much as possible.

This December 2012 photo provided by The Newtown Bee shows the Chalk Hill School building in Monroe, Conn.  An open house was planned for the Sandy Hook Elementary School students, of neighboring Newtown, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 at the former Chalk Hill School, a mothballed former middle school overhauled specially for them. Classes for the Sandy Hook students start there on Thursday.   (The Newtown Bee, Andy Hutchison, Associated Press) This December 2012 photo provided by The Newtown Bee shows the Chalk Hill School building in Monroe, Conn. An open house was planned for the Sandy Hook Elementary School students, of neighboring Newtown, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 at the former Chalk Hill School, a mothballed former middle school overhauled specially for them. Classes for the Sandy Hook students start there on Thursday. (The Newtown Bee, Andy Hutchison, Associated Press)

Newtown school Superintendent Janet Robinson said the school has been transformed into a "cheerful" place for the students. She said mental health counselors continue to be available for anyone who needs them.

Caron, 32, said her son knows what happened and has undergone counseling. She said her 5-year-old daughter, Paige, attends afternoon kindergarten at the school and has been dealing with nightmares about "snakes and bears and coyotes."

"She wasn't at school that day but was with me when we went to look for William at the firehouse," Caron said. "Unfortunately, she heard more about it than I wish she did."

Intellectually, Caron said, she knows her children will be very safe at their new school.

"But, emotionally," she said. "It's very hard to turn off the little 'What if?' that kind of hangs on and says, 'Well, you know what, December 14th started out as a normal day, too."

A man waves to a child on a bus on the first day of classes after the holiday break, in Newtown, Conn.,Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. (Associated Press) A man waves to a child on a bus on the first day of classes after the holiday break, in Newtown, Conn.,Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. (Associated Press)

Eaton-Robb contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.

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