Hundreds of children who had escaped a harrowing attack on their elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month, headed back to classes Thursday for the first time since a gunman barged into their school and killed 20 of their schoolmates and six staff members.
Across Newtown's sprawling Sandy Hook neighborhood, home to the elementary school where the Dec. 14 attack took place, children bundled in heavy winter coats boarded buses decked in green and white ribbons, their school colors, for the seven-mile journey to their new school building.
Chalk Hill Middle School, a disused school in the neighboring town of Monroe, was refurbished specifically for the students from Newtown, and now bears a new but familiar name — Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Anca Roberto, 35, put her five-year-old daughter, a kindergartner, on the bus not far from the old Sandy Hook school, which remains a bullet-riddled crime scene closed to anyone but police.
Roberto said she'd been nervous about the return to school until Wednesday, when she and her daughter attended an open house at the new location. Her daughter was thrilled to find her cubby intact, moved from the old school, and she "screeched" when she saw her friends.
The students "hugged, and they played and they were just children," Roberto said. "The teachers were just amazing."
With safety foremost on parents' and officials' minds in the wake of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, the school has been outfitted with a new security system. Monroe Police Department officers were patrolling the grounds, and all outside doorways and sidewalks are under surveillance.
"I think right now, we have to make this the safest school in America," Monroe Police Lt. Keith White said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Asked if she was nervous about her daughter's safety, Roberto said: "I was until yesterday. There's just so much supervision. They're in the safest place."
Parents wishing to remain with their children, age five to 10, from kindergarten through fourth grade, would be allowed to accompany them to their classrooms, and could wait in the school's "lecture room" for as long as they wished, according to a memo to parents on the school's website. Counseling would be available for students and parents at the new premises.
Erin Milgram, parent of a first-grader and a fourth-grader, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that she planned to drive behind the school bus and stay with her seven-year-old daughter Lauren, whose teacher Kaitlin Roig had hidden her first-grade class in a closet during the attack.
"I haven't gotten to that part yet about not being with them; I just need to stay with them for a while," Milgram said, fighting back tears.
As the students return Thursday, they will find all of their familiar belongings from their school in Sandy Hook, including desks that were left behind nearly three weeks ago, when Adam Lanza burst through the school doors and opened fire.
Their new school building has been decked out as a "Winter Wonderland," with the help of thousands of children from around the world.
"This does not look like the other elementary school," Newtown School Superintendent Janet Robinson said emphatically.
In the meantime, no new details have emerged to explain why the 20-year-old Lanza, armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, two other firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, targeted the school. State police investigators have said it could be months before they complete their report.
Described by family friends as having Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at their home about five miles from the school, before driving to Sandy Hook and embarking on the massacre, police said. He then took his own life as police arrived at the school, which had an enrollment of 456.
The massacre in Newtown, a rural New England town of 27,000 residents about 70 miles northeast of New York City, which President Barack Obama described as the worst day of his presidency, stunned the nation and reignited a highly charged debate over gun control. Obama has tasked Vice President Joe Biden with assembling a package of gun-control proposals to submit to Congress over the next several weeks.
The National Rifle Association, the most powerful gun-rights lobby in the United States, has rebuffed calls for more stringent firearm restrictions and, instead, called for armed guards to patrol every public school in the country.
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