51. Pressure Drop

February 18, 2008

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Four days after the attack on Cole Hall, someone in the pale yellow house got a copy of the day’s New York Times, and a pair of scissors. There was an article in the newspaper about the NIU shooting, a few pages in — they carefully clipped it out. (The cut-out from the newspaper would be found, years later, somewhere in the basement of 36 Yogananda.)

* * *

Adam was interested in Glock pistols, probably as a result of following the Virginia Tech story so closely. And now the NIU shooter had used one, too. Three days after the newspaper article was published, the website “Glocktalk” registered a new user account: Blarvink.

Blarvink posted to Glocktalk at least 19 times over the next seven months — but by the time the account was located, years later, its activity was already erased. He was always doing that, deleting stuff after so much time passed; hiding, or even just covering his tracks, gave him comfort.

As intrigued as he was by the NIU attack, though, the Westroads Mall shooting made even more of an impression. That might have been because the nerdy, pale Nebraskan kid with the AK-47 seemed to have been the catalyst for the attacks that immediately followed — it was where the dam broke.

Whatever the reason was, Nancy’s son never forgot Westroads. As with the Dawson College shooter up in Canada, these gunmen who were in the news during the first couple years he was visiting the Columbine discussion forum, despite their relatively brief moments of attention overall, would linger prominently in his memory, well after everyone else stopped talking about them.

* * *

Another week passed, and then Blarvink logged onto Wikipedia again. He navigated to the article for Barack Obama, and went to the “Talk” page — essentially a backstage discussion thread, where the site’s users debate changes to a given article — and found a debate under the heading “Liberal.” One user had announced that they would be adding mention of Obama’s “liberal” rating from conservative publications, while another user was arguing that such ratings were not “objective,” and thus should not be included in a reference article. Blarvink chimed in: “And yet you see no problem with subjective sentences in the article,” referring to an excerpt from a glowing review of a book Obama had written. “As long as he is praised, eh?”

Newtown High School

A sophomore named Daniel took a Computer Repair class at NHS that year. The teacher liked to give out group assignments, and sometimes, Daniel got paired with Adam Lanza. He remembers that the 15-year-old “was a very quiet and polite kid,” who was very adept at assembling and repairing the computers. But he “never once spoke as long as I knew him…If he smiled he only smirked.” However, Adam “clearly had a lot going on in his mind,” Daniel adds. “He was fearful of people, he would always walk right up against the side of the hallway, with eyes to the ground…”

Silence aside, though, Nancy’s son was a great partner to have. “He was incredibly smart, and basically fixed the whole computer by himself while I was goofing off.”

Later in the term, the class had to do solo presentations, demonstrating how to tweak some part or feature on a PC. Adam did his presentation on how to change the colors of the folders in Windows — but it was purely a visual demonstration. Adam stayed totally silent at the front of the class, as he slowly clicked through his slides, showing the words he intended to communicate without ever speaking any of them.

One day, some of their classmates brought in some burned CDs with the team shooter Counter-Strike on them, and installed the game on the class computers for an impromptu LAN session. Adam had clearly played the game before, and Daniel remembers the weapon load-out that he always chose: “An M4 assault rifle and a Glock handgun.”

* * *

One day, a staff member emailed Nancy; they had apparently noticed that Adam was having trouble with going to the cafeteria for lunch, and offered to arrange other accommodations for him.

Nancy wrote back, and wearily explained how it wasn’t that simple:

He will not accept any preferential treatment at all. Since he obviously NEEDS preferential treatment, it leaves me scurrying around behind his back fixing things… i.e. The gym thing. I actually had to make up a story about liability, bureaucracy, and being out of school for over 12 months, etc. … then I have to go to [staff member] and get her to back that up … then I have to go to [another staff member], and get him to go along. Then his teacher slips up and tells him that his IEP allows him to get out of study halls and I have to get her to recant and say it was a misunderstanding on her part. This is a high stress, 24/7 operation of misinformation. He does NOT have to go to lunch, but obviously I have to come up with a story that he will buy and then get everyone on the same page. Thanks for giving me the heads up. I will get on it first thing in the morning. I will think of something. He wants to believe that he is an ordinary student, and I think it is important to let him believe for his self-esteem.

It wasn’t working. By February of 2008, her son had dropped out of most of his mainstream classes — including Sociology, History, Chemistry, and Physics — and he had arranged to complete English as “independent study.” The adapted reading list, apparently, was not the solution they had hoped. None of it was.

As the “mainstream” plan crumbled around her, Nancy told the school that her son “struggled tolerating other students, their presence or behavior, in certain classes” — or, as Nancy explained it to family back in Kingston one visit, “Adam was always very mature, and he did not like school because he thought all of the other kids were immature.” But at the same time, he didn’t want to go back to the special education classrooms; he believed that a “small classroom setting” meant that it was a “stupid class.” He wanted to be away from the other kids, without ever accepting that he had a disability. In practice, this translated to as many “independent study” classes as he could get.

Nancy apologized to Newtown. She knew her son was “a difficult case, and [that] everyone [was] working very hard to accommodate [him].” She just wanted to make his “experience at school as tolerable as possible.”

She had been doing it for years, shepherding him through the school system. And Nancy recognized how much Newtown had done to help them (as adversarial as their positions could sometimes be). In one email, she wrote to the NHS administration to praise a group of teachers and counselors, saying that as a “parent of a child with special needs,” she appreciated the group leader’s “accessibility, positive attitude, and ability to handle any situation that [arose].” In another message, she said she thought at one point they had run into a “brick wall” in adapting the school environment around Adam — but she was “impressed” at how the group leader had demonstrated the “tenacity and creativity to find the doorways in that wall.”

And yet, none of it seemed to really help Adam. Whatever force had first spurred them to the Emergency Room in 2005, it seemed like it was coming back. Nancy wrote to Peter later that school year, in messages he would share with Andrew Solomon: “[Adam] had a horrible night…. He cried in the bathroom for 45 minutes and missed his first class.” Another message, a couple weeks later: “I am hoping that he pulls together in time for school this afternoon, but it is doubtful. He has been sitting with his head to one side for over an hour doing nothing.”

As Nancy withdrew Adam from one class after another that Spring, eventually her son was only setting foot on school grounds for special events — helping the Tech Club with their Newtown TV productions. The club remained one of the few things that could still get Adam to leave his room.

That February, Adam had a medical checkup. The doctor recorded that Nancy’s son was still diagnosed with Asperger’s and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and that there was no treatment of any sort being provided for either condition, scribbling “no meds, and no psych” on the form. There was another section, titled “Development,” asking for “after school activities” and “peer relations” — nothing was written there, except “10th grade.”

March 12, 2008

Newtown School Board

Then, it happened.

The reported incident occurred on a Wednesday afternoon, and it didn’t seem like much at first: the resource officer for Newtown High School had been in a room with the director of security, Mr. Novia, and a “most notorious” 15-year-old student, who had been in trouble many times before. They were questioning him about a bullying incident he was suspected to have been involved in, and he wasn’t cooperating. He wouldn’t even sit down. According to the police report, Richard Novia finally stood up, and shoved the teenager down onto a chair.

That was all that was alleged to have happened. It was all that needed to happen.

The Board of Education put Novia on administrative leave, effective immediately, while they decided what final action to take. They scheduled a hearing with the board for May 6th. Novia got an attorney, and prepared to fight for his job.

* * *

At the hearing — which was attended by a Newtown Bee reporter — Richard’s attorney pointed out that the security expert had been with the school district for fifteen years, and never before had any administrative action been taken against him. His suspension was “unjustifiable.” And meanwhile, the student he had allegedly shoved was no boy scout; he had since been expelled, and there was a “warrant outstanding for his arrest.”

In fact, it was heavily implied that this student was the very same who was behind the bullying incident earlier in the year, when the video of the boy taped to the chair made it to YouTube and Facebook. The school board members repeatedly had to remind Novia’s attorney that the student in question was a minor, and was not supposed to be identified publicly. The attorney countered by accusing the district of “tolerating the student’s behavior” in not expelling him earlier, and said, “Parents deserve to know what’s going on at the high school that caused this incident to happen,” before he was finally silenced.

Near the end of the session, some testimonials were read, sent in by the townspeople. Most of them extolled Richard’s job performance. Others, from teachers, confirmed the worst about the juvenile delinquent he had supposedly harmed.

The school board ruled that Mr. Novia should stay on unpaid leave for now, and scheduled one more hearing — where his fate in Newtown would ultimately be decided.

May 20, 2008

Reed Intermediate School — Newtown, Connecticut

They held the meeting behind closed doors, in the still-new school across from Fairfield Hills. As the evening dragged on, anxious townspeople began to gather in the library; only a handful at first, but then a dozen, and a dozen more. They kept coming, more than fifty of them — former students, colleagues, parents, cops — all turning out to show support for Mr. Novia.

In the private meeting, the atmosphere cannot have been friendly — in part because the political winds had changed in the last six months; Evan “On Time, On Budget” Pitkoff, the superintendent whom Richard had worked with for the last seven years, had just left Newtown to go fix up another district, in nearby Trumble.

Pitkoff had learned to trust Novia, and respected him. Pitkoff’s replacement did not. She was new in town, and intended to shake things up.

* * *

One of the persons circulating in the library crowd, just outside the doors, was Nancy Lanza. Richard had been her son’s champion ever since middle school, after all; in a time when everything else in her son’s life had seemed to fall away, Mr. Novia was there. He was there when her son was frozen in terror against the hallway wall, to get him where he needed to go — and to talk him back out into society, when he started to withdraw into his shell. And if Richard lost his position as Head of Security, that meant the Tech Club would get a different adviser, too; the last pieces of stability in her son’s life would vanish all at once, right when the end was almost in sight.

Nancy was the security director’s most ardent supporter. Some of the other parents in the library were even under the impression that Nancy herself had arranged the gathering; but she had simply posted it on Facebook, to spread the word.

* * *

The doors finally opened, and as Mr. Novia and his attorney stepped out from the executive session, former and current students, family, and friends swarmed to greet him. His attorney said there was “nothing to say” about how the session went, but smiled, “I’m not surprised by the turnout.”

There was a brief public-comment session. One of the first to speak was Ryan Lanza, having come from Quinnipiac to stick up for his old Tech Club mentor. He talked about how much Mr. Novia had taught him, and how the man had since taken Adam under his wing. “My brother has always been a nerd,” he said with love. “He still wears a pocket protector.” The tech club was for kids like him.

* * *

The verdict came soon after. Novia’s contract with the school district was set to lapse on June 30th, and the School Board announced that they were not going to renew. He was through in Newtown.

Her paladin fallen, Nancy immediately withdrew Adam from all classes at Newtown High School, and pulled him back into the pale yellow house. She told family that there was no one left at Newtown Schools that she could trust. And at any rate, it was obvious that the attempt at mainstreaming had failed. It was time for one more change of plans.

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Landscapers did some work at the house that spring. One day, one of them — a new member on the crew — needed to ask Nancy for her specifications on redesigning the garden. He went to the front door, and rang the doorbell; the next thing he knew, he was getting an earful. Nancy told him her son couldn’t tolerate loud, sudden noises — they made him “angry.” That was why there were rules: get her approval in advance before using any leaf blowers or loud equipment. Don’t come inside the house; if you need to speak to her, she’ll come outside. And never, ever ring the doorbell; just call her.

Adam stayed up in his room, while the remainder of the school year ticked by without him. He played old video games, and returned to World of Warcraft, and roamed the internet. Blarvink found himself back at GameFAQs — posting in the forum for an old Super Nintendo adaptation of Romance of III Kingdoms, set as a military strategy game. He posted a topic, “Something hilarious just happened”, about how one side in his game was able to hold off the entire enemy force with just one soldier in a castle, when the invading army ran out of rice and starved. “That is one hard-core soldier.”

The Newtown Bee published its annual edition with the school district’s honor roll in June. Adam was listed under the 10th grade, and also as having earned a “Latin Award — Summa Cum Laude.”

* * *

Downstairs, Nancy was making phone calls. She had briefly found herself considering homeschooling her son again, but she was concerned that it wouldn’t look good on college applications. So she thought of a better way, a Plan C: she would enroll him now at Western Connecticut State University, where he could earn credits toward his high school diploma.

It’d be just one town over, in Danbury. It might not be a perfect fix — there would be 5,000 strangers there as undergraduates, and the classes would be tougher than NHS had been — but at least they’d finally be getting Adam away from the K-12 public school environment entirely. At the beginning of the 10th grade, he had been determined to walk “through that front door” at NHS, but now, he wanted never to go back. Nancy wanted the same.

May 21, 2008

Western Connecticut State University — Danbury, Connecticut

Nancy took her son over to the campus in the afternoon. He went into a room at the Testing Center, and answered some math problems to ensure he met the Algebra pre-reqs for the courses she was signing him up for. The exam took him 9 minutes, and then the ACCUPLACER form printed out his score: 95.9 (which put him in the General Education Level). Then he had to fill out a few questions (likely just clicking multiple-choice radio buttons). Standard stuff.

Was English the first language you learned? Yes

Was there any reason you feel the tests were not accurate? No

Gender? I choose not to answer

How do you describe yourself? I choose not to answer

Meanwhile, Nancy was filling out a form, under the heading PERMISSION FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT TO REGISTER. She listed the names of people at Newtown High School that the college could contact if they needed to verify anything. She also picked up a schedule for WCSU’s summer term, set to begin within days.

Adam emerged from the Testing Center, and they went to get his new student ID. The camera that day captured Adam looking more frightened than ever: his eyes are wide-open, the picture of a “deer-in-headlights.” Even seen just from the neck-up, he is visibly gaunt, with barely any flesh softening the edges of his throat, where his neck emerges from his hooded sweatshirt.

For his summer classes, Adam wanted to take two computer courses: Website Production and Visual BASIC (a programming language). Nancy would drive him to the campus for every class day, and take him back home after.

* * *

Sometime during the WCSU application process, Nancy got in touch with Dr. Fox. According to billing records, Fox hadn’t seen her son since the summer of 2007 — when the “mainstream” plan started, and they shed all pretense of psychiatric care. But now, in October 2008, there was one, last payment: a single blip in the data, after more than a year of inactivity. Most likely, WCSU just needed his sign-off on the new IEP.

Dr. Fox would go on practicing psychiatry in the area, but he never saw Nancy or Adam again. Still, in a way, he would continue to hold significant dominion over a piece of their lives; Dr. Fox had been the only psychiatrist to have ever treated Adam Lanza on any regular basis, and his records were all centralized in a single file cabinet, at his office in Brookfield. He had never shared copies with anyone.

* * *

The Newtown High School yearbook came out, and again, Adam’s name was without a photo. But he did appear in the after-school club section, nestled in the half-page group photo of the Tech Club: it shows about a dozen club members standing in a semicircle, in a locker-lined hallway of the school. Most everyone in the picture is smiling, a few hamming it up… and then there is Adam, staring meekly into the middle distance, almost comical in his oversized clothing.

With the school year coming to a close, one of the boys in the picture was still playing Adam’s Gamecube at home; during one session, his mother asked him when he was going to return the console to its owner. “Mom, I can’t!” he yelled back. “No one knows where he is!”