Healing in the Wake of Newtown

In our last newsletter, we featured two touching firsthand accounts by educators Paul Stringer, vice president of the Connecticut Federation of School Administrators, Local 22, and Dr. Anthony Salvatore, president of the Newtown Association of School Administrators, Local 113, who both had worked with slain Sandy Hook School Principal Dawn Hochsprung.

Below, Salvatore continues his discussion, speaking to the process of moving forward and learning from the tragic events of the Newtown shooting.

Survival. We talk a lot about not just survival, but thriving and meeting the needs of our children and adults in Newtown. We have since the early 1990s, long before I began working there. Newtown uses the work of Dr. William Glasser and Choice Theory, which emphasizes the four psychological needs of every human being: love/belonging, power/competence, freedom/choice and fun. Newtown has long built into its policies and practices meeting these needs through instruction, curriculum, discipline and assessment.

Five years ago, I spoke with then-Superintendent Dr. Janet Robinson during the summer of her first year. I recommended we have every elementary school use “Responsive Classroom” for consistency of language and practice in K–4. Ironically, Sandy Hook School was the first school to adopt the research-based program 12 years ago and it had had great success. Dr. Robinson agreed and we began our journey to establish more consistency in our K–12 system as far as addressing the behavioral side of the Scientific Research-Based Intervention (SRBI) process required by law. I continually emphasized how the behavioral side of the Response to Intervention model was just as important (or more important) than the academic side. So, over the last five years, every elementary school implemented “Responsive Classroom,” which requires a minimum of a weeklong training for teachers, recommended for administrators, which I also participated in, as Dawn did.


Dr. Anthony Salvatore, president of the Newtown Association of School Administrators, Local 113

Dr. Anthony Salvatore, president of the Newtown Association of School Administrators, Local 113

Building On ‘Responsive Classroom’

Our next step was to advance the program into grades 6–8, which we have been planning for the past two years. This program, called “Developmental Designs,” is an extension of “Responsive Classroom” for older students, where they have more choices and input into the program’s design and outcome. In other words, it’s not as scripted as “Responsive Classroom,” but does use the same language. Up until now, it’s been a slow process for support of this program’s implementation and training because it’s expensive; however, now we are looking at training all 6–8 teachers this summer with the monies received from donations, grants or outright in-kind donation from the company itself. It isn’t final yet.


I have mixed feelings that a tragedy the magnitude of Sandy Hook had to occur before we implemented programs that make sense. I wonder if these programs would have prevented that tragedy if they had been put into place sooner. I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question. So, I continue to recommend and support practices and programs that will help us meet our needs.

We can only control our own behavior. This is one of the tenets of Choice Theory, but the choices we make can be based upon distorted reality and judgment. We try to help children and adults first identify the reality of a situation and then to explore workable options that satisfy their personal needs. Sometimes, this requires the help of someone else who can be neutral by asking such reflective questions as: What happened? (reality); What did you need? (basic human need); Did your behavior get you what you needed? (reality); What would you do differently? (choice) and What can you do to make it right for the other person(s)? (restitution).

Although I will never know the answer, I keep thinking of what the conversation was that was going on in Adam Lanza’s head. How can we do better in school to help avoid this behavior again, even knowing we can’t control someone else’s behavior, but we can control the conditions around that person. And that takes a whole global community, not just a school or a classroom. Suicide is a final act and one that tells me he saw no other option for meeting his basic human needs. Did he feel like he was loved and belonged to his family or community? I don’t know. Did he feel like he had power in his life to feel competent about who he was? I don’t know. Did he feel like he had a choice in his life besides taking his own life? I don’t know. Did he feel like his life was filled with fun? I don’t know.


Building Positive Relationships

I have hope that we will learn and choose to change our behavior as a global society one person at a time. It’s what our teachers and administrators do best in school—build positive relationships with individual students so they can learn how to make the best choice for meeting their own needs and for helping others in society meet theirs as well. I was part of the Strategic Planning Committee three years ago on a committee for character. As a result of two years of researching our community’s values, we synthesized them into six core character attributes for the entire community. We use the symbol of a tree (so younger children can understand how the core character attributes relate to each other.) This year, our task is to develop a rubric so everyone can assess their level of character in our community.


Valuing Cooperation Over Competition

It’s time to focus on cooperation instead of competition in our society. It won’t bring back the lives of the 28 victims who died on Dec. 14, 2012, but it will honor the sacrifice they made that day. My fear is we will make the same mistake other communities have made and not recognize that Adam Lanza also was a victim that day. This is where Newtown can truly be a leader toward a new vision and new understanding. We need forgiveness on so many levels, but we first need healing. We already know from research that isolating bullies in school is harmful to the individual and to the school climate. Alienating someone from a community only exacerbates the feeling of powerlessness and not belonging. We must forgive mistakes and nurture our capacity to do good. We have control of that.