Authors: Matthew Lysiak
Tags: #Nonfiction, #Retail, #True Crime
“She once told me she was so upset that teachers weren’t protecting him against bullies that she went with him like a bodyguard,” Marvin said. “Nancy would do anything to protect her son. She spoke to the teachers and said, ‘I’m going to be sitting in the back of the school’ . . . I remember that Nancy went to his class and nothing would happen.”
Nancy had a zero-tolerance policy toward violence of any type, not just concerning her son. While she felt at ease with a high-powered rifle aimed at a target for sport, the country girl was by nature a pacifist. After being told in March 1999 of an incident in New Hampshire involving a student attacking another with a nail, an outraged Nancy hinted at her growing frustration over Adam’s troubles.
“I was shocked when I read about the nail incident. I agree . . . that kid [with the nail] should be expelled from school,” she wrote in an email that month. “[Schools] go on and on about their great ‘zero tolerance’ regarding drugs and alcohol . . . but go ahead and let a kid attack another with a weapon!
“They will spend THOUSANDS of dollars on that child to keep an aide sitting with him . . . and then they say they don’t have money for one hour a week of speech therapy for a smart, quiet child with a speech impairment. I am totally disgusted with that school!” she wrote, referring to Adam.
Adam’s need for space extended to the school bus, where he would often sit in the back, usually alone. “He didn’t sit with the other kids and didn’t seem to have any friends,” said Marsha Moskowitz, who drove Adam on the bus for three years. “He was quiet, a very shy and reserved kid,” she said, noting that Adam “did little to reach out and make friends. I never saw him try.”
Still, despite her many grievances, overall Nancy was pleased with her son’s progress during his first few years at Sandy Hook Elementary, and everything appeared to be looking up. He sat with the general student body in the classroom and did well academically. Parent-teacher conferences were always uneventful, with Adam’s teachers giving nothing but good reports, other than occasionally reversing letters.
At home she noticed that more time was passing between temper tantrums. His Aspergers and sensory perception disorder were being managed.
“It’s been frustrating and it’s been a battle,” Nancy emailed a friend as the fourth-grade year wound to an end. “But overall I have to admit that Adam has been making quite a bit of progress. I’m not sure we could have received this level of attention back home.”
Although awkward, socially backward, and occasionally picked on and bullied, his family would later remember Adam’s time at Sandy Hook Elementary as “the best times of his life.”
n January 2003, more changes came as Adam entered Newtown’s Reed Intermediate School for fifth and sixth grades. Lanza and his
classmates were the first fifth-graders to attend the intermediate school, moving from Sandy Hook Elementary midyear in 2003.
Again, Adam’s odd behavior made the eleven-year-old stick out to classmates. “He was extremely introverted and didn’t talk to anyone,” recalled Dan Lynch, a former classmate. “He was really skittish, and anxious. He kept to himself and everyone left him alone.”
In the fall of 2004, Adam entered seventh grade at Newtown Middle School, and for the first three marking periods, his performance on paper academically was great. He achieved mostly A grades and his teacher described him as having a “positive attitude” and being “fully engaged and respectful.” He also earned an A in gym class and won the praise of his band teacher.
Middle school, however, would represent a turning point in his young life. While in elementary school, Adam rarely had to move from room to room, something he had always struggled with; now that he was entering middle school he was frequently required to change classes.
Classmates could see the terror on his face as he tried to navigate a hallway. “He always looked terrified as he walked down the hall. His shoulders would slump and he would cling to the wall,” one classmate said. “I remember thinking that he walks like he expects someone to hit him.”
That year, his inability to deal with sights, sounds, and textures started to become more acute. From the din of the lunch bell to the commotion of students rushing through the halls, everything around Adam had become a source of constant irritation. The struggles were spilling over to his home life, too, where the outbursts
started to become more violent as Adam became increasingly resistant about going to school.
Nancy fought with the school to accommodate her son’s condition. “This is torture for my son,” she told one school official.
The school did little to appease the angry mother, at least as far as Nancy was concerned. In turn, Nancy had developed a reputation as “tightly wound,” “demanding,” and with a “flare for dramatics” among some of the staff.
In 2005, Nancy had become fed up with how the academic district was dealing, or not dealing, with her son’s difficulties. She pulled him out Newtown Middle School in April 2005 and enrolled him at St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic school in Newtown. Nancy wasn’t religious, but she thought the smaller class sizes would ensure that her son received the kind of personal attention he so desperately needed.
Still, Adam’s troubles continued to escalate. He just could not fit in. While most children were talking about Avril Lavigne or the latest Harry Potter book, on the rare occasions when he did speak, it was often about fifties rock music or aliens.
“Adam had a difficult time making the adjustment from public school to St. Rose,” said Monsignor Robert Weiss, the pastor of the parish. “He struggled.”
More bad news came the Lanza family’s way when a teacher discovered a collection of disturbing graphics Adam had drawn. The images depicted people in various states of death. The educator brought them to the attention of school officials, who felt the drawings warranted enough concern to bring Nancy in for a parent-teacher conference. She defensively told the faculty by way
of explanation that Adam had Asperger’s syndrome and was struggling to fit in.
Adam’s time at his new Catholic school lasted just eight weeks. In June 2005, Nancy pulled him out of St. Rose of Lima. She was increasingly at a loss about what to do next and becoming more concerned. At home, she found more death-themed drawings by Adam and images of violence that he had printed out from his computer. Again, desperately searching for help for her troubled son, she consulted an expert in Hartford, Connecticut. Again, she didn’t feel that her concerns were being addressed.
“If one more person tells me that he is going to grow out of it, I think I’m going to lose my mind,” Nancy confided to a relative. “My son is sick, but no one seems to want to do anything about it.”
THE HIGH SCHOOL YEARS
s Adam Lanza was about to enter his first year of high school in the fall of 2006, Nancy felt encouraged. Finally, she believed, she had found an advocate at Newtown High School who would be responsive to her son’s needs and was willing to work with his Asperger’s syndrome and sensory perception disorder.
“Very encouraged with Newtown High,” Nancy wrote, sending a message to a friend. “Fingers crossed.”
Nancy had been looking forward to the beginning of the school year. Over the summer her worries about her son’s mental health were compounding. While the other children in Sandy Hook were busy swimming in the pool at Treadwell Memorial Park or cooling off with some homemade ice cream at the Ferris Acres Creamery, Adam continued to isolate himself, spending the vast majority of his summer vacation between the walls of 36 Yogananda Street on his computer or playing video games.
“It’s so hard to pull him out of his own little world,” Nancy told a friend that summer. “Still searching for that healthy balance of pushing him hard enough while not pushing him too hard.”
Nancy hoped that a new academic year and a new school environment might snap her son out of his self-imposed solitude. Working with the Newtown High School administration and Richard J. Novia, the head of security, as well as the school’s Tech Club adviser, they devised a program in which Adam would begin in a private classroom. This appealed to Nancy because it would mean Adam would be alone, where it would be quiet and he wouldn’t have to move from room to room, which could set him off. In time, if all went well, Adam would then be folded back into the main building with a mix of special education and honors classes.
Adam joined the Tech Club, a group of forty students who created robots, built computers, and even ran their own TV show that filmed local sporting events. The instructor, Novia, agreed to take special precautions while Adam was around the equipment. Since Adam didn’t feel physical pain like a normal person because of his sensory perception disorder, whenever Adam was using soldering tools and other potentially dangerous equipment he had to be closely watched.
From the beginning it was apparent to the class that Adam was a natural in the world of computers. As a sophomore in a class filled with juniors and seniors, he immediately stood out as the only one who could build a computer from scratch. His eyes grew wide and he seemed to go off into his own world as his hands and mind worked fluidly to wire complex circuitry onto the motherboard.
Novia, who started the Tech Club, saw Adam’s potential and
fragility and immediately took the fourteen-year-old under his wing. He worked with him patiently, trying to get him to join the rest of the group.
“I wanted to help him,” said Novia. “There was this glimmer in his eye and I believed that if we just tapped into that we could bring him out. He was brilliant. Most kids needed manuals and instructions to work the video editing. Adam didn’t need any of that. He had a natural gift.”
Novia met several times with Nancy Lanza to discuss Adam’s problems. She told Novia that Adam suffered from Asperger’s and sensory perception disorder. Adam had also been the victim of bullying, Nancy told Novia, and that faculty and administrators at his previous schools hadn’t done enough to protect him.
“I promised her that Adam would be protected and that no one would lay a hand on Adam so long as I was at the school,” said Novia.
It was clear right away that Adam would need close supervision.
“He fit the profile that suggested future problems, so we all kept an eye on him, right down to the custodians,” said Novia.
Like his years in middle school, ninth grade proved to be a struggle for Adam. He remained introverted and continued to seek out isolation.
“He would withdraw and sit in the corner, or stand off by himself and wobble back and forth,” said Novia. “He was constantly looking around. I never saw Adam laugh or smile. It was as if he was afraid of the world.”
But after a few months Novia began to see modest signs of progress in his student. When instructed as to which camera to
stand behind, Adam wouldn’t verbally respond but, after he became familiar with the process, would comply.
“That was major progress,” said Novia.
But as much as the instructor worked to bring him out of his shell, the awkward teen spent the majority of his time sitting alone inside the control room for video productions of the Tech Club’s channel 17. He would stay inside for hours with the door closed. The only light in the room came from the glow of the computer screens and monitors.
If there had been some signs of a brief respite from his disorders, it wouldn’t be long before Adam’s struggle with mental illness started to cripple him again. Almost on a weekly basis, he began having episodes that sent him into complete withdrawal. Loud noises, bright lights, or any sudden change or excitement could send him into a nonresponsive state. These episodes seemed to come on at random. If the other students began to organize a game of capture the flag, Adam saw the excitement building and sought out a quiet spot in a corner to sit down by himself.
“It was like he would go into a trance,” one student remembered. “It was a little scary. No one picked on him or anything. He just seemed vacant. Like he wasn’t there.”
The instructor sometimes sat next to him, patiently coaxing him back to reality. Adam rarely responded. The episodes sometimes ended with a call to Nancy, who immediately came to the school and soothingly touched her son’s arm and rubbed his back before carefully escorting him to the car.
His special needs were also obvious to Latin teacher Jennifer Huettner. The nervous thirteen-year-old arrived each morning in
Huettner’s private classroom wearing the same loose-fitting khaki pants and baggy blue polo shirt buttoned tightly at his neck. He carried a small pocket protector that contained pens, along with a black briefcase that he carried with him everywhere as his security blanket.
The briefcase was nearly empty, containing only a few personal notes and drawings.
“It was strange. This large briefcase filled with nothing but a few papers,” said one person who was familiar with its contents. “He wrote a lot about his parents’ separation. It bothered him greatly.”
Before sitting down, the first thing Adam did was to make sure his desk was sanitary. He would take out a small bottle of Purell and carefully wipe every spot to make sure it was germ-free. It had been a habit Adam had picked up several years earlier when he first became fixated on germs, especially when it came to food. If he thought someone might have touched his meal, he refused to eat, no matter how hungry he may have been. Once Adam was convinced that every spot had been sanitized, he would deliberately pull his seat out, put his bag down, and sit.