36. Shelter in Place

December 9, 2005

Newtown Middle School

The Newtown Bee published a list of the town’s middle school students who had made the Honor Roll that quarter. Adam’s name was printed there, under “Eighth Grade – First Marking Period.” But he hadn’t attended a class in months.

Three weeks had passed since Dr. Fox sent his letter to Newtown Schools, liberating Adam from the campus on Queen Street. However, there is no record in the IEP files to indicate that Dr. Fox ever supplied the district with his formal evaluation of their student, or the accompanying recommendations, as would have been routine. All they had from him was that single letter.

Dr. Fox was in attendance when the Planning and Placement Team finally met to establish Adam’s IEP for the 8th grade, in December of 2005, but he didn’t share a copy of the evaluation then, either. This was just as well; at the meeting, Newtown agreed to temporarily accept Dr. Fox’s request to grant homebound status, extending the placement for another three months. It also appears that the school district declined to identify Adam’s primary disability just yet, which suggests that they were unconvinced by Dr. Fox’s work; if the school district agreed with the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, the appropriate move at the time would have been for them to update Adam’s disability to “Autism.”

The school district put more time on the clock, and said they wanted a second opinion, offering to evaluate Adam themselves. But Nancy flatly declined, telling Newtown Schools that another psychological evaluation would “not be in Adam’s best interests.”

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

With Adam ensconced in the pale yellow house, the next steps in his IEP called for Nancy to gradually get him used to visitors — at first, educators coming into 36 Yogananda for regular tutoring sessions. But from there, they would gradually work towards bringing in school administrators, and doctors, getting Adam acclimated to them, too. Finally having access to their pupil, the school’s evaluators could then, hopefully, ascertain just what they believed his actual disability and corresponding needs really were.

But when the time came for tutoring sessions to begin, already the plans were changing — there would be no unfamiliar faces visiting 36 Yogananda after all. The only tutors Adam would be exposed to were his parents; Nancy would teach the humanities, while Peter would be making the hour-long drive up from Stamford multiple times a week, to teach Adam the sciences.

* * *

From the beginning, Nancy’s son refused to accept Dr. Fox’s diagnosis. He welcomed the opportunity to stay home from school, of course, but whenever Peter tried to talk to Adam about his disorder, he wouldn’t listen. “It was communicated as ‘Adam, this is good news. This is why you feel this way, and now we can do something about it’,” Peter would later recall to Andrew Solomon. But it was no use. “Adam was not open to therapy. He did not want to talk about problems and didn’t even admit he had Asperger’s.”

He wasn’t alone. Nancy — who had just finished fighting tooth-and-nail to obtain homebound status, ostensibly to alleviate and address what had just been diagnosed — privately held doubts that her son really had Asperger’s Syndrome at all.

* * *

The 8th grade tutoring arrangement never progressed past the first stage. The initial “up to ten hours” that was recommended in Adam’s IEP was likely nothing more than a simple acknowledgment of the state’s standard recommendations, which called for instruction to homebound students “for at least […] ten hours per week for children in grades seven through twelve.” IEP teams could make exceptions to that whenever necessary, and ultimately, the Child Advocate’s Office would find, “There is no evidence regarding how or if the recommended 10 hours per week of homebound instruction was delivered during this school year.” In the end, Adam appears to have obtained the exact education plan that Nancy had first requested through Dr. Fox in October 2005, back before anyone had even mentioned Asperger’s syndrome: a vague agreement to “achieve competency” from home, with no required tutoring or contact with the outside world whatsoever.

His primary goal achieved, Adam began customizing his habitat, in his bedroom at the top of the stairs. Sections of black plastic sheeting were cut to fit over each window — just as Homeland Security had advised in case of terrorist attacks — and the sheets were fixed to the interior walls with layered strips of blue “Edge-Lock” painter’s tape. It was in this way that he was finally able to establish a physical space for himself that he could tolerate; he transformed his bedroom into a sealed cocoon, where not a ray of light could penetrate, and no one, not even his mother, was allowed entry.

* * *

A girl who lived on Yogananda street went to connect to a Wi-Fi network one night, when she noticed a new connection on the list: “Night Elf.”

It was broadcasting from 36 Yogananda street. Adam had been into computers for some time, but this connection represented something more: it was his pipeline to a magical world, a plane of existence that was in harmony with his delicate sensibilities, and where there was no anxiety, no natural light, and no eye contact: the realm of Azeroth.

The PC role-playing game World of Warcraft was developed by Blizzard Entertainment, and was released to the public in November 2004. While not the first “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” (a sub-genre usually abbreviated to “MMO”), World of Warcraft quickly came to dominate the market. Most importantly to Blizzard, the MMO format, with its endless gameplay experience and constantly updating digital world, carried with it a subscription-based pricing model: access to Azeroth cost $14.99 a month.

It appears that Adam and his mother were communicating primarily in writing, around this time. Mixed in with handwritten formal requests to tweak this or that in his environment, is what appears to be his obtaining payment for the World of Warcraft account (as there is no other paid-subscription service that he is known to have signed up for):

I request that you wash my towels by using bleach. I will place them in the dryer at approximately 10:30. […] I request that you place more toothbrushes into my box and that you leave your credit card on the counter for the subscription.

Nancy would go on paying that bill for years to come.

Adam had already played “WoW” at Tech Club events before, so he knew what he was getting into, even as he installed it on his own PC for the first time.

Starting the game, Adam was prompted to create a character. He typed in a username that he had grown comfortable with over the last year at GameFAQs: “Blarvink.”

The game then prompted him to select a faction, a gender, and then a race.

A “night elf” — as the girl down the street later learned — was one of the eight races that a WoW player could control during their time in Azeroth. This choice was the most consequential in determining what a player could do, and the “role” they generally played in the game’s community. Playing as a night elf, Adam assumed a race that appeared in the game as a warrior from an ancient nocturnal tribe, known for their reclusiveness, wisdom, and traditions of drawing power from nature.

Whatever “class” Adam subsequently chose for his night elf, he didn’t much follow the progression path laid out by the game’s designers. World of Warcraft represented something more significant to him than just scripted quests — it was a virtual environment, populated by other real players, but also computer-simulated non-player characters (NPCs), programmed to run shops and drop bits of dialogue as they went about their day. Unlike most users, Adam liked to play WoW as if he really was a night elf, exploring the countrysides and cities and speaking to the artificial NPCs while “in-character.” For a boy who was afraid to leave the house or speak to strangers, role-playing with automatons in a fantasy world was the ultimate escape. And so, even as Adam was fading from the memories of his classmates on earth, Blarvink was coming to life, in Azeroth.

The computer room was across the hall from his bedroom. Soon, it became absorbed into his territory as well; Nancy had “blackout” shades installed over the room’s windows, to keep out as much sunlight as possible. (Most likely, the gun safe was already in the the closet there, when the computer room became part of Adam’s zone; if not, it was moved there sometime in the following four years.)

Spring 2006

Beginning that school year, Connecticut made a change to its standardized testing schedule: instead of the students taking the Connecticut Mastery Test right at the beginning of the school year, in September, the exam dates were shifted back to March. So, when the time came for every single one of Connecticut’s 8th graders (a class to which Adam still technically belonged) to be accounted for, that meant it was someone’s job to locate Adam Lanza, and have him complete the test.

They didn’t get very far. Nancy was alerted, and she had Dr. Fox respond to Newtown’s request for Adam’s availability. Fox told Newtown that Adam would not be able to take the test.

In response, Newtown demanded documentation to that effect:

In order to exempt Adam from taking the CMTs, we need a letter from you indicating that he is unable to attend school and is medically/emotionally unavailable for homebound instruction for the testing period and the make-up testing period . . . without this letter, we are mandated to send a certified teacher to Adam’s house to give him the test.

In the “No Child Left Behind” era, standardized tests were both a state and federal matter. Newtown had no authority to make exceptions.

Adam’s psychiatrist faxed Newtown a note, explicitly stating that his patient was “medically/emotionally unavailable to be tested” — and then added in parentheses, “CMT.” In the same fax, Dr. Fox confirmed (as summarized by the Child Advocate) that at this time, Adam “was not receiving home-bound or hospital-based tutoring and he was not attending school at all.”

According to Nancy’s billing records, Adam was at least leaving the house for regular sessions with Dr. Fox during this time, and did so at least twenty times over as many months. In 2013, Dr. Fox would recall that these sessions usually were with Adam and his mother, together in the room. Sometimes, Nancy waited outside, and Fox met just with Adam; at least once, Nancy met with Dr. Fox by herself.

* * *

Later that spring, Ryan turned eighteen. Adam’s older brother was officially an adult.

Twelve days later, Adam turned fourteen.

It was around this time, so he would later claim, that Nancy’s younger son began to question the cultural foundations that defined the concept of “adulthood.” He believed the age of eighteen was an “arbitrary” and “meaningless” point in time. The concept became a fixation of his, and he began to question more of the fundamental assumptions underlying modern society; it didn’t happen all at once, but a part of Adam’s belief system began to splinter off, drifting toward anarchy.

13th March 2006

National Archives of Scotland — Edinburgh, United Kingdom

A father from Dunblane waited as a clerk from the National Archives brought him the classified file he’d requested. Though the families of victims were invited to watch the Cullen Inquiry from the balcony of Royal Albert Hall in 1996, there had been at least one evidence exhibit that Lord Cullen ruled should remain sealed; the police knew what it said, and the MPs knew, but they didn’t talk about it at the Inquiry. No civilian, not even the families, had ever seen that file.

The official reason given for classifying it was that it contained the original 1991 report from the Child Protection Unit (from the same officer who had warned that the Scoutmaster would be “a risk to children whenever he has access to them”), and this report had contained the names of minor children, which could not be disclosed. It was for that simple reason that now, the whole file was sealed.

Since then — especially after the Scoutmaster’s letters came to light, ranting about the “brotherhood conspiracy” between the police, scouts, and Freemasons — rumors had grown that the sealed file actually contained the names of powerful UK politicians and police figures who were engaged in child abuse; the Cullen Inquiry, it usually followed, had just been one big cover-up.

The file was set to remain sealed for one hundred years. Many said that was too long, their suspicion of a government conspiracy escalating further. Others said the files should never be unsealed at all. The father from Dunblane was one who felt they should be released — he had studied the scoutmaster, and he did not believe there was any conspiracy, but he wanted to know everything. As the ten-year anniversary of the attack approached, a PM from Scotland decided to answer the father’s wishes, and the documents were unsealed, 90 years ahead of schedule.

Left alone in a room at the Scottish National Archives with the bundle of papers, the father from Dunblane felt any lingering doubts dissipate. There was nothing in the file that really changed anything — there was no conspiracy. Just the familiar, demented scoutmaster, with his own fully-legal arsenal.

The father from Dunblane gave up looking for any other game-changing piece of evidence, after that. “It’s not going to provide the kind of explanations that we as a society really need,” he told the Sunday Herald on the ten-year anniversary:

And that is: ‘how do you deal with someone like [him] before he goes over the edge?’ He was a strange, unusual person, but part of the community. [He] was accepted….some people have stood up and said ‘I didn’t find him too bad a chap.’ Now that is not someone who is evil. But year after year he was getting more and more upset about the society he lived in. At what point can this be spotted? And at what point can anyone intervene? We still don’t know.

April 7, 2006

Newtown High School

A 9-1-1 call came from NHS: there was a man in a dark van, parked across the street from the high school, and he was firing a rifle.

As Newtown PD squad cars swarmed to the scene, Superintendent Pitkoff declared a district-wide lockdown of all seven Newtown schools, for the first time in the town’s history. All the students were told to take cover — as they had practiced ever since Columbine — and all the doors were locked.

Newtown police detained the gunman, and soon determined that there was no actual threat to the school: the suspect had only fired a single shot from a Marlin hunting rifle, into a tree across the highway from the school. He owned the property there — but it was still against the law to shoot there, being so close to the school, so he was arrested and charged with unlawful discharge of a firearm. The “shooter” ended up getting probation, and a small fine.

At the end of the day, it was a relatively minor incident, and the emergency status was lifted after just ten minutes. But it showed that Newtown could do it: they had been practicing their drills for years, and when the alarm got pulled for real, everything went smoothly.

* * *

Evan Pitkoff had been down the road at Reed when the call came in, and drove straight to the scene, where he was waved through a police barricade. After the danger passed, and seeing the crowded halls of Newtown High School once again, the more traditional challenges facing the district came back into view: construction of the intermediate school had taken the pressure off the elementaries and NMS, but the high school was still overflowing. Making matters worse, while the population continued to surge, the townspeople had now voted against school budget increases two years straight, leaving the school with even less, to do even more.

In fact, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges had just completed an inspection of Newtown High School, and released a report on the conditions they found; the news wasn’t good. The inspection identified a number of causes for concern that would have to be addressed, from “inadequate staffing levels” to “the significant overcrowding and space concerns,” made worse by “the absence of any plan by the town to address the serious space issue.” Now, the school board in Newtown was concerned that the Commission on Public Secondary Schools might even put Newtown High School on “warning” status — a formal notice that if things didn’t change fast, their high school could actually lose accreditation.

Former Campus of Fairfield Hills Hospital

At the other end of Wasserman Way, on the old hospital campus, a backhoe was excavating the soil around the foundation of Bridgeport Hall. The large brick building had once been the dining facility for all of Fairfield State Hospital, where the patients came back from the farm with their harvest. Now, it was set to be renovated, and repurposed into the Newtown Municipal Center — the facility that would house all of the town government’s main offices — while the old Edmond Town Hall, after renovations, would retain its ceremonial title.

Though the work had started, its conclusion was suddenly in question. Town opinion on Fairfield Hills had shifted since the big meeting in June 2001 — cash was not “dripping from the trees” in Newtown as much as it once had — and though the town hall and the school budgets were funded under separate appropriations, a growing and vocal population within Newtown saw the situation differently: they wanted to cut spending, and the high school expansion was something they all acknowledged was an emergency. That left the “Fairfield Hills Master Plan” out in the cold — they had already waited for decades, and now that the town owned the hills again, they could wait some more.

June 2006

Pediatrician’s Office — Fairfield County

Nancy brought Adam in for another check-up. As they had done in 2003, Adam’s pediatrician again prescribed Aquaphor skin ointment for his excoriated hands. By itself, this entry in Adam’s medical records is an acknowledgment that his compulsive hand washing had not abated while home from school. He was not getting better, at least not as reflected in his daily rituals.

Stepping onto the doctor’s scale, Adam’s weight had decreased to just 94 pounds. Nancy told the doctor she was concerned about her son’s continuing weight loss, and they scheduled a consultation for August, just before the start of 9th grade.

Strangely, the pediatrician’s records don’t mention Adam’s visits with his psychiatrist during this time. It would have been normal for the two medical professionals to coordinate their efforts, but the pediatrician doesn’t even seem to have been aware of Dr. Fox, let alone that they shared a patient.

* * *

Shortly after this “well-child” checkup, Adam’s IEP team convened for another meeting. Again foregoing both autism and emotional disturbance, the IEP for June 2006 only listed Adam’s primary disability as “To Be Determined,” while the team agreed to again postpone their evaluation due to Adam’s extreme anxiety, and Dr. Fox’s recommendations. This development came only after Nancy had signed a release that authorized the school district to communicate with Adam’s psychiatrist about his condition — though once again, Dr. Fox did not supply the school with a copy of Adam’s evaluation. And he never would.

Now that the 2005-2006 school year was winding down, the talk was more about what to do the following year; tentative plans were being made to exit Adam from homebound status after the summer break. In the meantime, the Lanzas could comfort themselves that they had won another victory in their campaign: Adam had somehow finished the eighth grade, and as he was now advancing to his high school years, he would never have to set foot back on the campus of Newtown Middle School again.

The high school would be a whole new challenge. They knew they couldn’t just put Adam right back into mainstream classes, so Nancy and the IEP team agreed to take things gradually — and surprisingly, Adam seemed willing to give the outside world another chance.

Only Dr. Fox expressed pessimism about the plan; during a phone call with a Newtown special education teacher, Fox warned that the Lanza boy was “the most anxious” patient he had ever seen, and predicted that Newtown “would never get Adam back in school.”

* * *

On Friday, June 10 of 2006, most of Newtown Middle School’s 8th graders were getting ready for their right-of-passage “Moving Up” dance. The middle-school equivalent of Sandy Hook Elementary’s “Stepping Up” ceremony, this event marked the end of 8th grade, and the class’s long-awaited transition to Newtown High School. In order to attend the Moving Up dance, students had to be in 8th grade, dress semi-formally, earn passing grades, and must have attended class on the day of the dance.

Shut-in at home for the past eight months, Adam was not eligible to attend — even if he had wanted to. But, he could still dance; Peter and Nancy had bought him the home version of Dance Dance Revolution for his Playstation 2, complete with a plastic mat that he could spread out on the floor of his bedroom, mimicking the arcades. All he had to do was hop on. Now, for as long as he wanted, whenever he wanted, Adam could dance with a machine.