Sandy Hook school shooting: Mum Scarlett Lewis speaks about son Jesse on anniversary of tragedy

When Scarlett Lewis kissed her little boy goodbye on December 14, 2012, she had no idea it would be the last time she would ever see him alive.

It was an icy winter’s morning in the small US town of Newtown, Connecticut, and the single mum-of-two was snuggled up on the couch with a warm blanket and a freshly brewed cup of coffee.

Before long, her six-year-old son Jesse slowly plodded down the stairs as he did every day and Scarlett put her mug aside for a moment so that he could jump into her lap.

These comforting few minutes together was a sacred ritual between the two and a moment that the mum looked forward to each morning.

“It was the absolute best part of my day,” the now 55-year-old mum told news.com.au.

“That special time between us just set us up for the morning. It was our little routine.

“If I knew it would have been the last time we’d do it, I never would have let him go.”

She walked Jesse out the driveway to meet his dad, who was taking him to school that morning.

Scarlett noticed that the first grader had written “I Love You” on the frost that had covered the car, and she asked him to stand beside it while she took a photograph.

It was the final picture she would ever take of him.

Less than an hour later, Jesse would be gunned down in cold blood inside his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

He was one of 20 students, all aged between six and seven, to be murdered that morning, alongside six adult staff members.

Five minutes of hell

Earlier that day, perpetrator Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old former student of Sandy Hook, had shot and killed his own mother Nancy, 52, at home, before taking her car and driving to the school.

Armed with a rifle and ten magazines with 30 rounds each, he shot his way through a glass panel next to the locked front doors and entered the building.

He came face-to-face with Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung and the school’s psychologist Mary Sherlach, shooting and killing them both.

Lanza then entered the classroom of teacher Lauren Rousseau, killing her and 14 children.

He then went to a second classroom, where first-grade teacher Victoria Soto had tried to hide her students in a closet.

She attempted to misdirect Lanza by saying that the class was in the school’s auditorium, but Lanza killed Soto, as well as six students.

Special education aide Anne Marie Murphy was also killed, alongside behavioural therapist Rachel D’Avino, before he killed himself.

In less than five minutes, Adam Lanza had fired 154 rounds and murdered 26 people, in what has become the second deadliest school shooting in US history, behind the Virginia Tech university massacre in 2007, which left 32 dead.

“There’s been a shooting …”

When Scarlett heard from a colleague at work that there had been a shooting in the area, she never imagined it would have taken place at her son’s school.

“You always think these kind of things will never happen to you,” she said.

“I’d heard there had been a shooting. I remember thinking how horrible that was, and hoping everything was okay for everyone involved.

“Then someone asked me, ‘doesn’t your son go to Sandy Hook?’ and my heart dropped. I rushed over to the school to pick him up, because I knew he’d be scared.

“It’s funny, even though we have shootings at schools in America, and it’s a real possibility, I just never thought that it would be anything involving my kids.

“I never imagined that Jesse could be dead. I was in total denial.”

Racing over to the school, she explained that many different people were telling her many different things about where to go and who to see.

After a few hours, she began to give up hope and was told to put her son’s name on a list of missing people.

A police officer then asked her the question that she knew meant only one thing.

“A cop came up and asked if my son had any identifying markers, I knew that was not a good sign,” she recalled.

“I told him yes, Jesse had a mole on top of his right foot. A little while later, someone approached us and said ‘there is no easy way to say this, but your son is dead’.

“I was a mess. There were other parents and relatives around us getting the news too.

“I then realised that everyone’s name on that list was dead.”

“How was I meant to go home?”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Scarlett revealed how she feared she would never be able to step foot back inside the home she loved.

Everything reminded her of Jesse; from the car seat in the back of her vehicle to the pyjamas he had thrown off onto his bed the morning he was killed.

“It was the worst day of my life. I had no idea how I was meant to go on,” she said.

“I remember walking back to my car after getting the news, and looking back to see the child’s car seat, and just thinking how there was no child to put in there anymore.

“Jesse’s coat was still hanging up, his little boots by the front door. It was heartbreaking.”

Scarlett stayed with her mother for a few days until it came time for the inevitable.

“I didn’t want to go back into the house. But then I was given a choice.

“They were preparing for Jesse to be buried, and I could either go and choose the clothes myself or have someone else go pick them out.

“Of course, I wanted to choose his final outfit. I remember picking clothes that were very warm.

“It was a freezing time of year, and I thought he needed his flannel lined pants, a turtleneck and sweater. I also put him in the boots that he loved.

“I knew it was kind of ridiculous. He was dead, it didn’t matter if he was in warm clothes. But it mattered to me.”

Heroic final moments

Although the last horrific moments of little Jesse’s life was terrifying, the six-year-old used those final seconds to save nine of his classmates’ lives.

After Lanza slaughtered his teacher, Victoria Soto, his gun either jammed or he ran out of bullets, giving Jesse a few seconds to scream for everyone to get out.

“He yelled ‘Run!’ and then Lanza reloaded and shot him in the head,” Scarlett said.

“Because of that, he managed to save nine of his classmates’ lives. Those kids got to live because of my son’s actions, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Before this tragedy, the small town of Newtown was regarded as an incredibly safe, calm and peaceful place to live.

With a population of about 27,000, violent crime in the area was never a concern, with the town experiencing only one homicide in the last decade before the shooting.

The mum recalled how she quickly fell in love with the New England charm of the town, and thought it was the perfect place to raise her children.

“I adored the old town feel, and my little farm house was built in 1740,” she said.

“There was actual seasons, which made it fun. It had a very serene feel.

“Ironically, what really sold it for me was the impeccable school system. This area had one of the best in the entire state.”

Finding forgiveness

Despite feeling so much pain, Scarlett knew she had to forgive her son’s murderer if she ever wanted to move forward.

“I did forgive Adam Lanza. Almost immediately,” she said.

“I knew that somebody that could do something so heinous must have been in a tremendous amount of pain, and it turns out he was.

“This understanding helped me find compassion for him and move towards forgiveness.

“Forgiveness enabled me to take my personal power back and not be another victim of him.

“I realise that many people don’t understand forgiveness. They think that it’s a gift that they give the person who hurt them that doesn’t deserve it.

“In reality, it’s a gift that you give yourself. A gift of freedom from pain and suffering.

“I also wanted to model for my surviving son how to move through trauma and pain with strength and grace. The only way I could do that was through forgiveness.”

Choosing love

Scarlett knew her life would never look the same after losing Jesse in such a horrific way.

Walking back into her house for the first time after her son’s murder, she noticed something written on the family’s fridge blackboard in Jesse’s writing.

“He had written the words Nurturing, Healing, Love. I was awe-struck,” the mum recalled.

“Of course, it was written phonetically, as he was still learning to write. But the message was clear.

“What six-year-old would write that? I was stunned.

“I feel like it was a spiritual awareness. Like he knew he didn’t have much time left on earth, and he wanted to leave a message.

“It was in that moment that I realised my purpose in this world. Jesse made sure of it.”

Scarlett spearheaded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement in January 2013.

The aim of the organisation is to provide free Character Social Emotional Development programs (CSED), which in turn instigates safer and more loving communities through next generation life skills and character development.

Jesse’s words are the foundational values of the movement, with their individual meaning generating a formula for “choosing love”.

Nurturing means loving, kindness and gratitude; Healing means forgiveness; and Love means compassion-in-action.

“I think we can prevent 100 per cent of school shootings,” Scarlett said.

“They don’t have to happen. Thousands attempt suicide each day, we need to do better.

“We’re not giving kids the skills and tools they need to manage their pain, and prolonged pain changes you as a person. It weakens you.

“Hurt people hurt people, but healed people can heal people. I realised that if Adam Lanza felt good about himself, I don’t think this tragedy would have ever happened.

“We now have schools across the world coming to us every day wanting this. We’re changing the world, and I feel Jesse right there with me every step of the way.”

Jesse’s legacy

All of Jesse’s family honour him in little ways each day and Scarlett says they all carry his spirit with them throughout their lives.

On special occasions, such as Christmas and birthdays, they will walk up the road to where he is buried and bring balloons and gifts for him.

If he were still alive, Jesse would have been 17 this year, with the end of high school just around the corner and his sights set on the future.

In the days after the shooting, his brother JT – who is now 23 – found a folded up note in his room that was written by Jesse with just five simple words: “Have a lot of fun”.

This, along with his message of ‘nurturing, healing, love’, is the mantra that the Lewis family live by and what the rest of the world can take away from Jesse’s six years on earth.

“I am a spiritual person and I know that Jesse and I will be reunited one day,” Scarlett smiled.

“It has been a journey, that’s for sure. Not one that I would have chosen, but we can’t always choose what happens to us in life.

“We can only choose how we respond. I know we’re out there making Jesse proud each day and that is all I would ever want.”

As of December, there have been at least 80 school shootings in the United States so far in 2023, according to CNN.

In addition, as of December 13th, 2023, there have been 637 mass shootings in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

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