32. Fantasy

Report Card

Student: Lanza, Adam

Grade: 07

Homeroom: A18

Third Marking Period – Newtown Middle School

SCIENCE 7

Marks: A-

Effort: A

Comments: “Adam is making good progress.”

ENGLISH 7

Marks: B

Effort: B

Comments: “Adam’s satisfactory work continues”

SOC ST 7

Marks: A

Effort: A+

Comments: “Adam is always on task and eager [to learn]”

MATH 7

Marks: A-

Effort: B+

Comments: “Adam is conscientious, responsible”

Spring 2005

Newtown Middle School

Over the course of her son’s first year in middle school, Nancy witnessed him undergo a dramatic change. Suddenly, he wasn’t leaving the house as much as he used to. He quit the school band, and in fact stopped playing the saxophone altogether. He quit playing baseball and soccer, as well — and when Nancy asked him why, he told her that he had never enjoyed playing sports. He had only been doing it to appease her. That wouldn’t be enough, anymore.

He also declared that he hated celebrating birthdays, and all holidays. Peter suspected that this was due to the basic function of a holiday: interrupting the regularly scheduled patterns of life. Adam hated surprises.

Strangest of all, Adam had almost completely stopped spending time in the woods. He used to love climbing trees, and hiking; before, he wanted to climb every peak in New Hampshire. Now, he wouldn’t leave his bedroom.

The talkative Adam, the one that had shown Peter around his new middle school at the start of the year, had not lasted long there. The passing periods, in particular, were causing Adam’s anxiety to spike, and on many school days, by the time he got to class, his tolerance for any stimulation at all was gone. Even the colors on the pages of his textbook would be enough to overload him. Nancy tried to muffle the noise level, even finding out what chapters Adam was assigned on a given day and photocopying them in black-and-white ahead of time. Her son was still a smart kid, and his grades hadn’t dipped much, but there was the inescapable feeling that Adam was, by some less-tangible measure, falling behind.

* * *

In the March 2005 edition of the “Lion’s Roar,” Principal Sherlock dedicated her column to an issue that concerned many of her students and their parents: bullying. After sharing her own experiences of being bullied as a little girl, she explained how things were different now:

While my guess is that most of us have either witnessed or experienced similar treatment, until fairly recently, bullying seemed to be a problem many thought was just a by-product at some time or another of being a kid. Yet upon closer investigation, we have learned that many unhappy teenagers and adults credit their unhappiness to the scars of childhood bullying. Finally, the topic is receiving not only national attention but also legislation and has become behavior that will no longer be tolerated.

Our Board of Education policy defines bullying as “any overt acts by a student or group of students directed against another student while on school grounds or at a school-sponsored activity, which acts are repeated over time.” Obviously, in order to stop bullying, we must know it is happening. Reporting is key!

Sherlock added that they would also take anonymous tips. “Each report will be investigated, and a written report will be filed and kept for future reference.”

* * *

There is no official record that Adam was ever bullied during his time at Newtown Middle School. Many of his classmates would later tell the police what they remembered of these years, and none of them recall ever seeing Adam being bullied, either.

On the other hand, there are a few friends and family members of Nancy’s who remember her claiming that Adam was getting bullied at school, or that he came home with bruises on his body — or maybe they remember her saying that she had to physically come to the school to prevent the bullying from happening. But no one who was actually at the school recalls this as a reason for her visits. They only remember Nancy coming to the campus for one reason: because Adam was having “issues.” His mother appeared on those days — which came more frequently as the months passed — when he couldn’t handle being around the other kids. Nancy’s phone would ring, and she would come and take Adam back to 36 Yogananda, so he could calm down. That was all. (And if she wanted to wait closer to the school, “My Place” was right across the street.)

In one message Nancy wrote around this time (the recipient has not been identified), Nancy appears more forthcoming about her concerns:

Other children will tease him and undermine his confidence. He will learn to talk less, not more. Already some children are saying he’s weird when they don’t understand him. At this point he thinks it’s funny when they say that. As he gets older, he will realize that it isn’t.

The feedback loop thus seemed to have set in: Adam’s anxieties over the social aspects of the classroom would distract him from the course’s content, and then he would fall behind in homework; but he would also be too afraid to ask questions, because then the class would slow down to his level, and he could sense resentment whenever that happened, cranking up his anxiety level even further. “One on one he is extraordinary. In a classroom setting he is performing well below age level,” Nancy writes in the message (later released to the Hartford Courant as the result of a FOIA lawsuit). Even she stops short of calling such implied teasing “bullying,” though; her son didn’t need to be bullied to feel overwhelmed.

Peter, meanwhile, simply assumed that his youngest son was getting bullied, in that way one expects any shy, awkward, funny-looking kid to get pushed around in middle school. Peter recognized that it was “crystal clear something was wrong” with Adam by this time: the rigid, upright way that he walked, in particular, struck him as being something that would get his son picked on. Still, he never heard of an actual incident taking place. It just seemed obvious that it would happen, eventually, one way or another. It was only a matter of time.

Adam himself felt the same way. Things were easier for him at home, where there was both comfort and escape; the Lanza family owned every current video game console, and the boys had just gotten the new release from the Call of Duty franchise, Finest Hour — the first time the series came to a home console. Now, Adam could experience a cutting-edge recreation of World War II through the eyes of a soldier on the front lines, all from the safety of the big yellow house.

There were moments of light in Nancy’s life that fall, as well; on October 27, 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series, and the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino” was finally broken. Nancy couldn’t have been more proud; she brought home a framed set of photos showing the 1918 and 2004 World Series champion teams, and also a limited-edition “Red Sox Supper” print, which showed Leonardo da Vinci’s biblical masterpiece The Last Supper — with the faces of Red Sox players painted over those of Jesus Christ and the apostles.

Newtown High School

The high school’s Tech Club was in what Richard Novia called “expansion mode.” As the head of security for Newtown High School, his day didn’t end when the last bell rang; he still had to keep an eye on the dozens of after-school clubs that would be gathering in classrooms scattered around the campus. It was back with the Class of 1995 when he had first decided to start one of his own; the idea for the Tech Club was that it would be like the “A/V Club” at most schools, with an added emphasis on computers. Novia formed it with just two students, who felt the school was falling behind on technology. “It all took off from there,” Novia would tell the Newtown Bee.

Starting in 1999, the local cable company, Charter Communications, gave Newtown High School their own public access channel, to beam sports games and announcements all over Newtown. The Tech Club was responsible for producing all of the programming on “Newtown TV Channel 17” — from the cameras, to the audio, to the editing. In 2004, when the tech club had grown to 30 students, “NTV17” won a regional award from the National Television Academy — the same organization that awards the Emmys.

Gradually, Mr. Novia began to see the club’s potential from his perspective as director of security: it gave the nerdier boys — the awkward and vulnerable ones that were likelier to get picked on, if they didn’t band together in some way — something to do as after school. And, it gave the socially isolated ones something truly invaluable: a group of supportive peers that they fit in with.

For the bullied kids, often the pattern of abuse was well in place before their first day at the high school. That was the reason why Mr. Novia was now steering the Tech Club into “expansion mode”: to bring in kids straight from Newtown Middle School, before they ever passed by the lenses of his security cameras. Every few weeks, he and the Tech Club students would load up their equipment, take the short drive to the middle school, set up their robotics in the commons there, and proceed to “wow” the younger kids. Mr. Novia would pace around the stations, watching the 12-13 year-olds as they assembled basic machines on the floor.

One of those kids, one day, was Adam Lanza. “From when I first met him,” Novia would tell PBS Frontline in 2013, “I recognized him as a person who would be likely to be bullied or picked on.”

Novia soon took the boy’s mother aside. He already knew Nancy — Ryan Lanza had joined the Tech Club shortly after arriving at Newtown High School, and through it had made a lot of friends — but they had never discussed Adam before. Knowing that he would eventually be responsible for her youngest son’s safety when he enrolled at NHS, Novia asked what conditions the boy had that he should be aware of, and what strategies Nancy had found over the years to deal with his issues.

Nancy replied that Adam had “multiple disorders,” including Sensory Processing Disorder. It was because of that issue, she explained, that Richard would need to watch out for what Adam was doing at all times, because if Adam was ever in pain, he may not be able to communicate so. And if anything else bad happened to him, his shyness meant he probably would never report it.

“I think I can help him,” Richard told her. He wanted to have Adam along for more of the Tech Club events, even as a middle-schooler, to see how well he acclimated to the group. Nancy gave Richard permission to try, but confessed that she didn’t think it would do any good. “She was failing at bringing him out of his little world,” Novia would recall of Nancy’s self-image, years later.

April 2005

St. Rose of Lima School — Newtown, Connecticut

School was dismissed for spring break on Friday, April 15, 2005. There would only be eight weeks left in the school year, once the crowds of students came back to Newtown Middle School — but Nancy’s son wouldn’t be among them. She had made her decision, and she was going to do now what she wished she’d done when Adam was still at Sandy Hook Elementary. But first, she went to the store and bought a crisp blue polo shirt, and a pair of khakis for Adam: his new uniform.

Adam became a student at St. Rose of Lima school shortly after his 13th birthday. The tiny campus sits on the same plot of land as the church, and is made up of a series of modest brick buildings that are a complete departure from the snaking corridors at NMS. And St. Rose of Lima admitted just 311 total students that year. (Even this had been an increase, part of a trend that Principal Mary Rose Maloney would proudly explain was “because people really want the faith-based education we offer, and because of the great community of parents and teachers who pull together in good times and bad.”)

To Nancy, this little parochial school seemed to offer the best hope yet for an environment that her son could handle. It appears to have been entirely Nancy’s call, too — her son hadn’t had a real IEP with the district since the fourth grade.

* * *

Adam’s classmates at St. Rose seem to remember him more vividly than the public school kids, probably owing to the smaller class sizes that brought him there. Still, the Adam in their memories would be a clean progression of the one seen at his previous schools: one classmate remembers that he “wasn’t an outcast, but he didn’t fit in either.” Another says that Adam “wasn’t interested in what normal, average 13-year-olds were interested in.” He “didn’t like contemporary music,” for one example — he was more comfortable listening to music from the 1950’s, or soundtracks from Japanese anime.

Beneath the surface, there were signs that emotionally, he was getting worse. One instructor at St. Rose of Lima would never forget the pale, thin, 13-year-old’s presence in his classroom:

[A]fter my years of experience teaching 7th-grade boys, I know how they are supposed to act. But I saw Adam as being not normal with very distinct anti-social issues. Adam was a very intelligent boy but he was also very quiet, barely spoke, and never responded to his classmates’ kindness of trying to help him fit in… I also remember Adam never wanting to participate in anything… I truly do not believe that Adam’s parents were upfront with teachers about [his] mental capacities…

The same teacher became more concerned when he read what Adam was turning in for his class assignments — stories that were expansions on the themes from the Big Book of Granny, and continued downward on a dark path:

I remember giving creative writing assignments to students, instructing them to write a page or two on whatever they wanted to talk about . . . Adam would write ten pages obsessing about battles, destruction and war. I have known 7th grade boys to talk about things like this, but Adam’s level of violence was disturbing. I remember showing the writings to the principal at the time, [and] Adam’s creative writing was so graphic that it could not be shared.

If Principal Maloney was indeed shown any of these writings that Adam produced, no one made a record of it; when his file was subpoenaed by the United States Attorney’s Office in January 2013, the folder would contain no mention of any graphic assignments being turned in. As for his parents, the Office of the Child Advocate found, “There is also no indication that Mr. or Mrs. Lanza were aware of or were reviewing what [Adam] was producing for school, or whether they had any concerns about it at all.”

In fact, the same teacher’s recollections suggest that Peter, at least at times, was intentionally kept in the dark. The teacher remembers “instructing [Adam] that he had to write something else to share,” for an assignment that was to be shown at an open-house, “[so] instead he wrote a poem that from what I recall was beautiful.” The teacher then recounts the scene when Adam read the poem aloud to a group of students and parents in the classroom: the teacher, in disbelief, looked for Peter Lanza in the crowd of adults — and, finding him, saw that there were tears streaming down his face. Whether it was the poem that had moved him, or just the fact that his son was speaking in public at all, the teacher could not discern.

Spring 2005

Reed Intermediate School — Newtown, Connecticut

In the year-and-a-half that Adam Lanza had attended Newtown’s “5/6” intermediate school, the district faced down many growing pains: the mid-year migration, the horrible traffic — and even a mysterious rash that turned out to be the product of a leaking pipe, nurturing mold spores in the school’s ceiling. But another kind of challenge came the year after Adam and his class had moved on, as the new school found itself faced with answering a question that every educator in the country had been asking themselves ever since Columbine: What do we do if we think one of our students may be a school shooter?

It had all started on March 24, 2005. A student had reported a theft, and Principal Denniston ordered security to search their classroom. They didn’t find the stolen item, but the search turned up something far more concerning: a boy’s writing journal, in which he fantasized about murdering one of his classmates. And he had identified the other boy by name.

Principal Denniston called the unsuspecting classmate’s house, and spoke to the targeted boy’s parents. She read for them the entry in question, in which the killing was “portrayed as a fictional account,” but which graphically described “deadly, violent acts” being committed against the boy, as well as against his parents. Principal Denniston said it was her responsibility to notify them, and that the school was taking care of it.

If she thought that simple assurance was enough, she was wrong. “Folks, we are in big trouble if something outside the normal realm of teaching our kids occurs,” the parents told a reporter from the Newtown Bee that June, frustrated after months of back-and-forth with the school district. “They were more concerned about violating the rights of the child who wrote the threats than in protecting our child. The principal was trying to keep it quiet, no bad perception, no bad press.”

The story ran under the front-page headline “Student Journal ‘Threats’ Spark Parent Concerns — And Administrator Reassurances.” In response, Reed administrators told the Bee the same thing they told the family: that the boy who had written the threatening journal entry had been “suspended for a few days,” and had been spoken to by a school psychologist. To maintain confidentiality, the school emphasized, they were not able to disclose any further details. Period.

The targeted family wanted the school to go further, and contact the Chief of Police to investigate the threat. They believed it was serious. “I would like to know that they have checked out this child’s background, home life, and websites or chat rooms visited on the computer,” the father said. “Do I think this is a Columbine? I would say it is close to a zero chance, but it needs to be investigated.”

In the same Thursday, June 9 edition, the Bee also ran a “Letter to the Editor” from the concerned father:

As my wife and I became exposed to more details of the situation, the level of concern we felt increased exponentially. The child that wrote the journal entry thought things through very specifically. In my experience, this was not a casual piece of ‘fantasy writing’ as the school leadership described. This was a precursor to potentially more serious actions.

By the way, since when is writing about killing another student in your class and his family an acceptable fantasy?

The family didn’t mince words about what the consequences could be if their warnings were ignored. They knew all about what had just happened at Red Lake:

We are extremely unhappy about the way this issue was handled. We are terrified about the concept of what may or could in the future happen. Not to be overly dramatic, [but] read the facts about the boy in Minnesota … He was doing a bit of “fantasy writing” before he decided to get serious and enter his school with a weapon and kill innocent staff and students.

In all of my experience, there is one common theme when individuals suffer from horrific events: they all thought that it would never happen to them or in their town.

The purpose of our writing this letter is simply to make other families aware that, yes, we live in a wonderful community, but there is no doubt in our minds that with all the violence on television, video games, etc, that children and their actions need to be monitored for the safety of us all.

But Principal Denniston stood firm, and Superintendent Pitkoff backed her all the way, delivering Newtown’s boilerplate response: “We have procedures in place but we are limited. We cannot comment.” The controversy died out by the start of the next school year, and Newtown never named the student who wrote the disturbing journal entries.

May 22, 2005

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Upstairs at the pale yellow house, Nancy’s son was creating an online profile. He had finally settled on a username he liked: “Blarvink.”

He created a profile on GameFAQs, and thus left behind his earliest known online footprint; the account would allow him to vote on user-submitted guides for the video games he was playing, or to submit data to flesh out a game’s profile page. It was just a small thing, a few letters on a forum… and yet his avatar, Blarvink, was doing something that Adam increasingly could not tolerate to do himself: be seen. By strangers, even. The potential of the technology resonated with something in him, a seeming realization that it was easier to interact like this, without facial expressions to interpret, or eyes to make contact with. And, without any expectation of holding up his end of a conversation in real-time, he could gather and transmit his genuine thoughts, finally sending signals out from the sealed interior — if he ever chose to.

* * *

Two and a half weeks later, on June 8, 2005, a user submitted a drawing to the website 2draw.com under the title “Elder crying over Nuclear Weapon.” It was a somewhat crooked, Microsoft Paint-style digital doodle, created through the website’s mouse-based drawing interface. It depicts an elderly person in the foreground, facing away from the viewer and toward a massive explosion in the distance, which appears to have been set off by a tossed cigarette, or match. The “Elder,” as indicated in the drawing’s title, is shedding a tear. The artist submitted it with the description “It’s my first picture…”

The overall shape of the “Elder” in this digital sketch — with the large black shoes, wide silhouette, and with a cane in one hand — is very reminiscent of the drawing of “Granny” from the cover of the Big Book of Granny, at least one copy of which never left 36 Yogananda. In addition, the scene being depicted in the 2draw submission recalls a scene from the Granny story, in which Granny “throws a match and causes an explosion and threatens to shoot and kill the children,” as summarized by police in 2013.

The drawing took 40 minutes to produce. It was submitted by a user under the name “Blarvink.”

June 14, 2005

St. Rose of Lima School — Newtown, Connecticut

A girl brought her camera along with her to class one day. She saw her recently-arrived classmate, Adam Lanza, seated at his desk, a crumpled lunch bag in his hand. He had developed a strong aversion to being photographed in recent years, but — whether he was feeling more at-ease that day, or was just caught by surprise — when his classmate came up and clicked the shutter, he smiled and waved for the camera.

This frozen moment in a classroom at St. Rose of Lima is date-stamped in orange digital type: 06 14 ‘05. At thirteen years old, Adam’s grin is tight, but his eyes are wide, staring into the flash. He has a pimple under his nose. He is wearing the school’s blue polo, too big for his body and buttoned all the way to the top. Both arms, and his neck, are noticeably thin. One arm rests on his desk, and with the other Adam is waving at the camera, his hand slightly blurred, in the middle of a hello — or, just as appropriately, a goodbye.

* * *

One day, near the very end of the school year, teachers at St. Rose noticed that Adam’s desk was empty. The reasons for his abrupt removal from the school remain elusive: medical records from a few years later document that Adam “became obsessed with religion” while attending the Catholic school — but he ultimately “disapproved” of religion, because he considered it “illogical.” (To an online acquaintance, years later, he would write that religion “requires actions and encourages types of behavior which are based on delusions which don’t have any basis in reality.”)

In an excerpt from a later class assignment, released in the Courant case, Nancy’s son was apparently writing about the integration of religion into the education at St. Rose, and after describing the environment only in vague terms, added, “It appears as though this is a cult which has disassociated from society, but a closer inspection reveals it to be Saint Rose School … It still has the effect of a cult on its followers, however.”

This discordant state of affairs — for reasons not elaborated upon anywhere in the official records — quickly spelled the end of Nancy’s experiment with private schooling. It is also not clear if the decision to part ways was made by the Lanza family, or the school’s staff. (One possibility is that a deadline for a show of faith from Adam was drawing near: students at St. Rose of Lima are expected to take the sacrament of confirmation in the 8th grade.)

Whoever made the call and why, Adam did not finish even a single quarter at St. Rose. He went back to 36 Yogananda, and stayed there for the final weeks of the school year. The way his dad saw it, Adam was in his “comfort zone” at home; but for Nancy, the school year’s end was a grim milestone. St. Rose had been her backup plan for years, and it had been a spectacular failure. It seemed her son could not handle being at school — any school — and yet the education system was the one force society possessed that was strong enough to regularly pull him out of 36 Yogananda. She had bought her son some time, and carried him one more step along the path to someday graduating, but now she needed another plan, and fast.