Alyssa Morin

Newtown tragedy hits home in Hermosa Beach

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Ryan Kraft, who grew up in Newtown and babysat Adam Lanza, began a fund for victims in his hometown. Photo by Kevin Cody

Ryan Kraft was making his morning commute last Friday from Hermosa Beach to Hawthorne when the pings of text messages began sounding over and over on his phone.

“Didn’t you go to school in Newtown?” several friends asked.

“Turn on the news,” one text instructed.

Kraft turned on his car radio and found out about the killings in Newtown. He was chilled. Kraft, 25, had spent the last eight years of his childhood in the small Connecticut town. He loved Newtown, and was utterly shocked such bloodshed could visit a place where people didn’t even lock the doors to their homes.

Within two minutes, he made up his mind to do something positive in response to the horrifying loss of life in his former hometown. By the time he arrived at work 18 minutes later and boarded a shuttle that took him from the parking lot to his office, he already knew that he would utilize the fundraising site Crowdrise to create a fund on behalf of Newtown victims.

When he arrived at his office – where he works as an aerospace engineer for SpaceX – Kraft logged on to his computer and read accounts of the unfolding tragedy. It was then that he read the name that made him reel.

Adam Lanza.

When Kraft was 14, he’d babysat Lanza, who lived two doors down and was then a 9-year-old boy. He remembers him as a quiet, awkward kid who had few friends, if any. Lanza’s mom, Nancy, instructed Kraft to keep an extremely close eye on her son, he recalled. “Pay close attention to him, and never leave the room,” she told Kraft.

He was also told to “never turn your back” on the child. Kraft thought it was odd that he was sometimes asked to babysit when Lanza’s brother, just a year younger than Kraft, was home, too. But there was nothing in Kraft’s recollections about the young boy that would ever suggest the monster living inside him.

Kraft’s surreal morning continued when his cell phone began ringing again. Reporters had somehow caught wind of Kraft’s connections to Newtown and the Lanzas and found his unlisted cell phone number.

“I think a lot of people want to know who Adam was, but I can’t give that answer,” Kraft said in an interview on Monday. “And more importantly, that answer doesn’t help the more than twenty people who lost their lives or their families or anyone else in the community. So I am focusing on what I can do now and not what happened ten years ago which is of little consequence.”

Kraft has answered some questions from the media about his limited experience with the Lanzas but only for the purpose of spreading the word about his fund and to speak highly of Nancy Lanza, the gunman’s mother and first victim. He is not expecting to shed any unique light on the massacre or the person responsible.

Word of Kraft’s fund spread quickly and by Monday morning the donations reached $80,000. The money will go directly to the PTA of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Kraft is leaving it to locals to disburse appropriately.

“I have an idea of where I’d like the money to go to, as I’m sure everyone who donated does,” Kraft said. “But the truth is we’re not there. I want the people who are locally involved to make the decision about where this money goes.”

Local lawmakers and educators are trying to do their part from afar, as well. Many are harnessing this moment of public outrage to address the multitude of factors that may have led to not only the Newtown rampage but to the mass shootings that plagued the country in recent years.

State Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), father of two young children, reacted strongly. “I’m done crying, but will continue praying for the 20 slaughtered children and several adults who were murdered,” Lieu posted on his Facebook page on Saturday morning. “Now I’m angry. If more legislators got angry, there will be change.”

Lieu announced Monday that he was reintroducing a bill to improve school emergency preparedness. The bill would amend the Education Code to define the requirements of school safety plans, and enforce strict compliance by schools to the regulations. Lieu introduced the same bill last year in the aftermath of the Aurora and Wisconsin shootings, but it died in fiscal committee because of budget restraints.

The senator thinks the bill has a far greater chance of passing now.

“This tragedy has brought a complex set of issues to the forefront,” Lieu said. “It is very clear to parents now that when we send our kids to school, we are entrusting the state with their care. We need to have school safety plans that address possible catastrophes.”

Lieu is also putting his support behind Senator Dianne Feinstein’s call to reintroduce the expired national ban on assault weapons and a bill from State Senator Leland Yee that would close a significant loophole in California’s assault weapon ban. Yee’s bill was also introduced last year and it, too, died in committee. In a press release Tuesday, Yee announced plans to propose two additional gun control bills that would address registration, background checks, and safety procedures.

“While we cannot stop every senseless act of gun violence, surely we can strengthen our laws to limit such tragedies in the future,” said Yee in his press release. “These bills, as well as the ammunition bill authored by Senator Kevin De Leon and the school safety bill by Senator Ted Lieu, will help make our communities safer.”

South Bay educators have been proactive in their attempts to allay parents’ fears. On Friday, Steven Keller, Superintendent of the Redondo Beach Unified School District, sent an email to all of the parents of students in his district mapping out exactly how they maximize the safety of their schools. Mike Matthews, Superintendent for Manhattan Beach, sent out a similar email.

While educational leaders can do their part to keep schools safe, Keller stresses that this is only one piece of the puzzle. “Schools need to work in synergy with our community at the local, state, and national level,” Keller said. “Our leaders need to look very closely at this issue.”

It is clear that no singular institution can bear the exclusive burden of preventing these atrocities, Keller said.

Not everyone locally believes gun control is the answer. Chuck Michel, a locally-based lawyer whose clients include the National Rifle Association, believes part of the answer is arming educators.

“I am a father,” Michel said. “I am just as angry as everyone else. But I am angry with the politicians who think that gun control laws are going to solve the problem. Prohibition doesn’t work.”

Michel believes mental health reform is vital to the issue but, more immediately, he’d like to see teachers, principals, or school security guards armed with guns.

“The only thing you can do if someone comes into a school to hurt people is to have someone else in that school with a gun who can stop him,” Michel said.

Beyond the politics of the issue, Kraft is heartened by the action being taken all over the country in response to the tragedy in Newtown. But he remains focused on the healing of his childhood community.

“I admire people who are thinking ahead about how to prevent this kind of inciden, but there are lots of people doing that,” he said. “I am one person in a town where a lot of people knew me and I know a lot of people still, and I want to make an impact there because that’s a place where I have a unique capability to do that.”

Kraft’s fund continues to grow and has already passed $120,000. “I just hope it all can somehow accelerate the healing process and help those who survived rebuild their lives,” Kraft said.

He mentioned specific concern for the family of Anne Marie Murphy, a special education teacher who was killed at Sandy Hook last Friday. Her husband was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and the couple’s young daughter is a student in town. “That’s the kind of situation I want these funds to be able to help with,” Kraft said. “It’s horrible…the thought of this person losing one parent and possibly losing another soon.”

Kraft is heartsick from the events of last Friday, as is his mother, who worked in a daycare center that some of the young victims attended. He tries not to let it consume him.

“I am the type of person that, when something bad happens, I can’t dwell on it, I have to act,” he said. “And with this type of tragedy there is no rubble to clean up. There is nothing you can do with your hands to help anyone. You can only hug the families so many times.”

See crowdrise.com/ryankraft to contribute to Kraft’s fund.

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