Sandy Hook Elementary Survivors Join Thousands Of Others At March for Our Lives

Rebecca Lurye
PUBLISHED MARCH 24, 2018

 Scenes from Connecticut and beyond as teen advocates march for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting.   (Rebecca Lurye / Hartford Courant)

Scenes from Connecticut and beyond as teen advocates march for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting.

 (Rebecca Lurye / Hartford Courant)

As Emma Gonzalez, the teenage activist from Parkland, Fla., stood in rigid silence on stage before hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, D.C., on Saturday afternoon, another survivor of a school massacre began to squirm.

In the middle of the crowd, 12-year-old Joseph Soriano from Sandy Hook turned to his mother, Brenda, to ask if Emma was OK. Tears ran down Brenda Soriano’s cheeks.

“Yeah, she’s OK,” she told Joseph, one of several children who were first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School when their classmates were slain in 2012, who traveled to the March for Our Lives in Washingtom with about 360 others from Newtown.

The Newtown contingent traveled to the “March for Our Lives” rally to advocate for gun control, as many of them have done for the past five years, and to show support for school-shooting survivors like Emma, who have become the young faces of a new anti-gun-violence movement.

Joseph leaned into his mom for a hug that lasted a few of the six minutes and 20 seconds that Emma spent silently standing on stage, quiet and stone-faced, demonstrating the time it took a gunman to claim 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month.

“I just know that it wasn’t from sadness,” Joseph said of his mom’s tears. “It was from everything else.”

 Piper Coleman, left, and Ellie Meyer, joined a group of about 340 people from Newtown traveling to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. (Rebecca Lurye)

Piper Coleman, left, and Ellie Meyer, joined a group of about 340 people from Newtown traveling to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. (Rebecca Lurye)

Joseph was at Sandy Hook School on Dec. 14, 2012, during the mass shooting that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. Saturday was his family’s first foray into activism, and their first look at the fierce hope and determination of this new anti-gun violence movement.

They joined hundreds of students and families from Connecticut, who came by bus to join thousands of others and lend their voices to “March for Our Lives.”

More than 800 additional marches were held from Hartford to Washington, from Europe to Asia, in reaction to the Parkland massacre that left 17 students and educators dead last month.

The March for Our Lives movement was organized by a group of students-turned-activists who survived shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. They’re calling for stricter gun laws, including bans on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines and an end to background check loopholes.

An Awakening

For many of the teenagers who went to Washington Saturday, the National School Walkout earlier this month was their first taste of activism.

"I truly believe this is a turning point,” said Po Murray, director of the Newtown Action Alliance, which organized the bus convoy with Sandy Hook Promise.

Mia DiScipio, a member of the Newtown Action Alliance who traveled to the march, said she didn't know how to feel or what to say in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, which shook her community in the small, neighboring town of Easton.

After the shooting, then-16-year-old DiScipio returned in fear to Joel Barlow High School — only to be placed on lockdown for a reason she didn’t find out as her second-period Spanish class wound down.

DiScipio and her classmates crammed onto the floor under desks at the back of the room. Students held hands and cried while DiScipio prayed for her life, she says.

“I genuinely thought someone was in our school and it was happening to us.”

 Mia DiScipio's sign. (Rebecca Lurye)

Mia DiScipio's sign. (Rebecca Lurye)

Before then, she hadn’t considered gun violence a personal issue. She’d been in elementary school when a 23-year-old man shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech five years earlier and accepted that, in the wake of mass shootings, adults would often say it wasn’t the time to discuss gun control.

So, even after Sandy Hook, DiScipio said, she didn’t feel her voice belonged in the gun control debate.

“Now I know what I think and I know what I want,” she said. “The students in Parkland aren’t just empowering themselves as survivors. They’re empowering every one of us who’s ever had to deal with gun violence.

“I finally have that voice.”

Piper Coleman, 17, and Ellie Meyer, 13, said they found the aftermath of Parkland inspiring, and remembered messages like “Protect kids, not guns” when it was time to make their own signs for Saturday’s march.

A few years apart in age, the close friends have different memories of their town’s tragedy five years ago.

Coleman, then 12, learned about the massacre from her parents, who thought Piper deserved to know what happened at her old elementary school, she said.

Meyer was a second-grader at Newtown’s Head O’Meadow School, and 8, a little older than the children slain at Sandy Hook.

Later, Meyer learned some details of the shooting from friends who had been at Sandy Hook.

“Our parents didn’t want to tell us,” she said.

Now, they’re heartened to see how the conversation around guns has changed and spread.

“Newtown [and Connecticut] controlled guns after Sandy Hook, but no one else really tried,” Coleman said. “The Parkland survivors brought attention to it when elementary school students really couldn’t.”

More than half of those on the buses from Newtown were high school students or younger. The rest were parents, teachers, college students and activists.

 Benjamin Paley, a Sandy Hook survivor and high school freshman, takes in the March for Our Lives next to his dad, Andrew Paley. (Rebeccca Lurye)

Benjamin Paley, a Sandy Hook survivor and high school freshman, takes in the March for Our Lives next to his dad, Andrew Paley. (Rebeccca Lurye)

Some, like Barbara Kugler, came alone but said they were marching for their children.

Kugler’s son was a preschooler at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, though he was home on the day of the shooting. So, on Saturday, the nurse had boarded her bus to D.C. straight from a shift at Masonicare at Newtown, a Sandy Hook assisted living facility.

‘People Just Want Their Safety’

As the bus convoy moved through New Jersey early Saturday Eric Milgram flipped through photos on his phone and landed for a minute on one from his daughter Lauren’s 6th birthday party. Eleven girls in princess dresses posed in front of a Disney backdrop at Stew Leonard’s in Danbury. Four of them would be killed on Dec. 14, 2012.

 Eric Milgram's cell phone (Rebeccca Lurye)

Eric Milgram's cell phone (Rebeccca Lurye)

“We put up with this in this country,” said Milgram, who helped organize the trip to D.C. “No family should have to go through this. It’s totally preventable.”

Milgram, a data scientist, wiped a few tears on his sleeve but kept talking. He said he once crunched the numbers on the death toll at Sandy Hook that day.

“If you look at simple odds, if you had a first-grader, there was a 40 percent chance your child wasn't coming home,” Milgram says. “Almost a coin flip.”

 Mia DiScipio, 21, of Easton - a small community that neighbors Newtown - experienced a school lockdown just after the Sandy Hook massacre. (Rebecca Lurye)

Mia DiScipio, 21, of Easton - a small community that neighbors Newtown - experienced a school lockdown just after the Sandy Hook massacre. (Rebecca Lurye)

Now that his daughter, 12, has started to speak out about gun control, she has seen that not everyone supports the youth-led movement. People sometimes criticize outspoken children and teens as naive or claim they’re being fed lines.

Lauren says people should listen to her message.

“You really know after going through something like this that things should change,” she said. “People just want their safety.”

Two months after her 6th birthday, Lauren and her first-grade classmates were sitting on the carpet around their teacher, who had just started the day’s lesson, when they heard a loud sound like someone nailing a poster to a wall.

Their teacher moved the class into a tiny bathroom, where they stayed, and survived, as others were murdered.

“It’s sorrowful to know that so many people have to go through this,” Lauren said before the march. “I think there’s going to be a lot of people who realize there’s too many shootings. It needs to change.”

‘I Am A Sandy Hook Survivor’

Most of the students who survived the massacre of Dec. 14, 2012, chose simpler messages for the Washington rally. “Sandy Hook Survivor,” read two. “Will I be next?” read 13-year-old Sophia Soriano’s.

Her brother, Joseph, had two images on his poster: an AR-15, and a smiley photo of himself holding a cup of melted ice cream at the 2013 Sandy Hook Sock Hop.

 Two Sandy Hook survivors, who traveled from Newtown with a group of about 360 people, hold their signs high in the crowd during the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. They asked not to be named. (Rebeccca Lurye)

Two Sandy Hook survivors, who traveled from Newtown with a group of about 360 people, hold their signs high in the crowd during the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. They asked not to be named. (Rebeccca Lurye)

“Pick one,” he wrote. The students said their arms ached from holding their posters aloft, but they rarely let them fall.

Their messages seemed to buoy those who flowed around the stationary group. People nodded, tapped the kids’ shoulders and stopped to shake their hands.

One woman pounded her chest as she passed, a bounce in her step.

“I feel like it’s a good thing,” one Sandy Hook survivor, who asked not to be named, said of the attention. “The more it spreads, the more the violence will stop.”

He and fellow survivors chanted, “Vote them out!,” referring to lawmakers, and sang sweetly with the enormous crowd’s rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Parkland victim Nicholas Dworte, who would have turned 18 Saturday.

They listened intently to the speeches but most closely when Matthew Soto, brother of Sandy Hook victim Victoria Soto, took the podium.

One survivor wept as she held her poster, the letters “PTSD” sparkling with glitter glue.

Parkland wants change, Soto said. Newtown wants change.

“Give it to us now.”