UConn Remembers Sandy Hook 10 Years Later

By Mered­ith Veilleux

When Jil­lian Soto intro­duced her­self dur­ing a class on UCon­n’s Water­bury cam­pus, a class­mate asked if she was relat­ed to Vic­to­ria Soto, one of the teach­ers mur­dered in the Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School shooting. 

Vic­to­ria was her sis­ter. The class­mate start­ed ver­bal­ly harass­ing her say­ing the shoot­ing nev­er hap­pened, that her sis­ter nev­er exist­ed, and that the whole event was a hoax, she said. 

I just left and went straight to my car,” Soto recalled as she tes­ti­fied in the Alex Jones tri­al in Octo­ber. “A friend of mine who was in the class was able to grab my stuff, and I dropped that class the next day.” 

Ten years after the Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School shoot­ing and UConn is not immune to the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries sur­round­ing the tragedy.

The Sandy Hook shoot­ing on Decem­ber 14, 2012, in New­town, Con­necti­cut was put under a micro­scope by Alex Jones of Infowars and oth­er con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists when they began to ques­tion if the shoot­ing had ever actu­al­ly hap­pened. Jones hosts a radio show with an audi­ence of millions.

Recent­ly, Jones was sued for defama­tion by fam­i­lies of some of the shoot­ing vic­tims and a FBI agent in Texas and Con­necti­cut. Soto was part of the Con­necti­cut case.

In the tri­al the plain­tiffs’ attor­ney Christo­pher Mat­tei said to Jones, “Among the things that you said about Sandy Hook was that it was fake, yes?” Jones said yes to this.

Mat­tei con­tin­ued to ask Jones to acknowl­edge the things he had said: that Sandy Hook was “syn­thet­ic, man­u­fac­tured, with actors” and a “total hoax.” Jones said yes, that he acknowl­edged say­ing all of these things as well. 

Con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about the Sandy Hook shoot­ing have led to harass­ment against sur­vivors and fam­i­lies of victims.

Con­necti­cut and Texas juries have ordered Jones to pay the plain­tiffs a total of almost $1.5 bil­lion dol­lars between the two trials. 

Aman­da J. Craw­ford is a vet­er­an polit­i­cal reporter and an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at UConn. She has cov­ered the Alex Jones tri­als and wrote about one family’s fight against hoax­ers for the Boston Globe.

What we know is that UConn is not immune to the kind of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that have spread about this shoot­ing, and as the Alex Jones tri­al has shown and I’ve also heard from oth­er stu­dents and fac­ul­ty, there are peo­ple in the UConn com­mu­ni­ty who doubt that the shoot­ing hap­pened because that mis­in­for­ma­tion has spread so much,” Craw­ford said.

After the tragedy, UConn forged ties with sur­vivors by estab­lish­ing a schol­ar­ship called the Sandy Hook Memo­r­i­al Schol­ar­ship in order to help those who were direct­ly affect­ed by the tragedy. Jen­nifer Huber of the UConn Foun­da­tion said there have been a total of 77 awards giv­en to 28 stu­dent recip­i­ents for this schol­ar­ship. Almost $1.3 mil­lion has been donat­ed to this schol­ar­ship fund since it was estab­lished in 2012. 

What we can see is that the Sandy Hook shoot­ing was a tragedy that affect­ed Con­necti­cut as a state,” Craw­ford said. “Peo­ple who not only lived in New­town but through­out the state felt the impact of this hor­rif­ic shoot­ing so I think that UConn cer­tain­ly saw that and estab­lished this schol­ar­ship that has helped some peo­ple con­nect­ed to that shoot­ing come to UConn.” 

Sur­vivors have had to endure end­less harass­ment in per­son and on social media due to the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries sur­round­ing the shooting. 

Craw­ford said that she recent­ly met with a stu­dent who is among those sur­vivors from Sandy Hook who have been harassed by con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists who believe that they are hid­ing their iden­ti­ty and that they are actu­al­ly the chil­dren who were mur­dered, liv­ing out their lives under assumed identities. 

You can real­ly see how long these kinds of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries impact peo­ple,” Craw­ford said. “It has been 10 years and there are still fam­i­lies and indi­vid­u­als who are harassed because of the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about Sandy Hook.” 

The Alex Jones tri­al revealed some of the harass­ment that sur­vivors and fam­i­lies from Sandy Hook have faced over the past decade. 

Ryan Graney, the Soto’s media direc­tor, has helped the fam­i­ly deal with hate­ful com­ments on social media.

The amount of hate that they get is insane,” Graney said in a phone interview. 

She said the Alex Jones tri­al had increased the amount of harass­ment and hate that the fam­i­ly is get­ting. The YouTube chan­nel that live streamed one of the tri­als had to turn the com­ments off because of peo­ple com­ment­ing hate­ful things, she noted. 

Car­lee Soto, Jil­lian and Victoria’s sis­ter, also tes­ti­fied in the tri­al along with their broth­er Matthew Soto.

Graney said a video of Carlee’s tes­ti­mo­ny drew a lot of atten­tion and nasty comments.

Peo­ple were call­ing her a hoax­er under­neath it and say­ing that she wasn’t real­ly cry­ing,” Graney said. “So giv­en the most recent media cov­er­age, the harass­ment has stepped up a bit.”

Matthew Soto tes­ti­fied that he also faced deniers in a uni­ver­si­ty class­room as a stu­dent at South­ern Con­necti­cut State University. 

He said he recalled being in a his­to­ry class his sopho­more year of col­lege dis­cussing cur­rent events when the pro­fes­sor asked: “How many of you think Sandy Hook actu­al­ly happened?”

Not every­body raised their hands, which Matthew Soto said imme­di­ate­ly caused him to have a pan­ic attack.

I knew I was sit­ting in a room with peo­ple that thought that I was­n’t real, that my sis­ter was­n’t real, and I got up and I left and I dropped out of that class, and it was a very hard thing for me to go back to school even that week,” he testified.

Top pho­to: Sandy Hook Memo­r­i­al in New­town, Con­necti­cut (Pho­to by Bri­an Woolston/Associated Press, Novem­ber 2022)