STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — The terrible news coming from a Connecticut elementary school shocked and saddened Mainers everywhere, but it hit close to home for residents of the small town of Stockton Springs.
Four years ago, an armed man burst into Stockton Springs Elementary School and held the fifth-grade class hostage at gunpoint, telling the children that they were his protection against police and other authorities. Randall Hofland — the gunman — also grabbed at children who had been getting their breakfast in the school cafeteria.
The ordeal was fairly brief — the fifth-graders were held hostage for roughly half an hour altogether — and ended peacefully. Hofland is now serving consecutive 30- and five-year sentences for charges associated with the Oct. 31, 2008, hostage-taking.
“My heart aches and grieves for those affected by the horrific and senseless act of evil in Newtown, Conn.,” Barbara West, the mother of one of the Stockton Springs students, wrote in an email sent to the BDN on Sunday. “I can understand, from what we experienced at our school, what those parents in Connecticut felt in first hearing something terribly wrong was happening at their school. I am very fortunate that I, or anyone else in our community, did not experience the unimaginable loss they are enduring. God bless them all.”
It could have been much worse, Denise Dakin, the mother of a former Stockton Springs fourth grader, said Saturday of the Stockton Springs situation.
“Words can’t express how those [Connecticut] parents must be feeling. It makes me think how lucky I am every day. I wish there was something we could do for them, but no one’s going to take away that hurt for a long, long time,” she said.
Even with an outcome as ultimately positive as in Stockton Springs, the hostage-taking left wounds on those involved.
“As lucky as we have been, the emotional trauma lives for a long time,” Dakin said.
Her now-13-year-old son was one of the boys Hofland tried to grab in the cafeteria and pull into the school bathroom before school bus driver Glenn Larrabee intervened and rescued him. For three years after his life was turned upside down that morning, her son took a weapon to sleep with him every night.
“He went to bed fully prepared to protect us or himself,” she said. “The weapon could have been a hammer. It could have been anything, but he had to have something every single night. The school did a great job at counseling, but it is awful to watch a child go through that, and it’s worse when it’s your own.”
West said that her daughter was in the fourth grade at the time of the hostage-taking, and her teacher “did a tremendous job at protecting her students.” The fourth-graders were hiding in a locked classroom while Hofland forced his way into the fifth-grade class next door, and could hear the others screaming for help.
“My daughter became so scared that she started to vomit,” she recounted.
When West got the call about the gunman at her daughter’s school, she said she was both terrified and numb.
“All I could think of was the news accounts of the many school shootings across our country and the tragic end results they had,” she wrote. “All I wanted to do was hold my child. It was the worst feeling and fear I had ever felt. Waiting to be reunited with our daughter seemed like an eternity.”
Dakin, a member of the RSU 20 board of directors, said that her family watched reports about the grisly shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Friday night. Twenty schoolchildren were slaughtered by heavily armed gunman Adam Lanza, who killed at least 26 people in all.
“I’m sure a lot of thoughts go through these kids’ heads,” Dakin said, adding that the Stockton Springs youngsters had benefited from counseling after the 2008 incident. “When things like this happen in the community, they seem to bond together. It’s made a lot of them closer.”
She said that the children and others have worked hard at not allowing Hofland’s actions to influence their lives too much.
“You don’t want a man like that to control the rest of their lives,” she said. “You never forget, but you move on.”
West said that her daughter still gets nervous and jumpy periodically, but benefited from beginning to study taekwondo soon after the hostage situation. She now has a second-degree black belt in the martial art.
“She has grown stronger and more confident, and we like knowing she has self-defense skills should she ever need to use them,” she said.
Dakin added that law enforcement agents and teachers acted heroically in Stockton Springs, as they did in Connecticut.
“There’s nothing they wouldn’t do to keep the kids safe,” she said.
The elementary school in Stockton Springs was put on a precautionary lockdown Friday, after learning about the Connecticut murders.
“I think we pay more attention now,” she said. “Anything can happen in today’s society. It’s proven day in and day out. It’s something that shouldn’t be happening, but it does. You just hug your kids close. You don’t stay mad quite so long at them. And you hope for the best.”
Reuters contributed to this report.