NEWTOWN, CT — The story of how Newtown teacher Victoria Soto sacrificed her life for those of her first-grade students will no doubt echo through the hallways of a new school to be named in her honor.
The Stratford, CT, Town Council voted unanimously Monday to name the new elementary school on the campus of Stratford Academy after the fallen hero teacher who grew up in Stratford and graduated from Stratford High in 2003.
Construction on what will become Victoria Soto School is expected to begin in the summer. The school will serve grades K though 2.
"I am happy that the town was able to come together and pass this and I feel honored that my sister's name will stay alive and she will never be forgotten," Jillian Soto, Victoria's sister, told WTNH and other media that crowded her after the vote passed.
"For the 19 children you protected you were an angel [and] you've been my hero my entire life," Jillian said at her sister's funeral on Dec. 19. "I'm so proud of you and all you did in your 27 years."
The vote comes exactly one month after the Dec. 14 mass shooting that claimed the lives of 20 young students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which is located about 20 miles north of Stratford.
The idea to rename what would have been the new Honeyspot Elementary School was brought forth by Mayor John A. Harkins. Though he was absent from Monday's meeting due to a family emergency, Council members rallied for a unanimous vote.
"There's no more nobler way to perish," said a choked-up Councilman Matt Catalano (R-3).
Before the vote, several residents during public forum backed the resolution to name the school after Soto. However, the majority of residents who spoke also used the time to question why a resolution mainly on gun control drafted by Councilwoman Stephanie Philips (D-2) was not on the agenda.
In a letter to the media last week, Philips said the resolution aims to put pressure on Congress to act immediately to prevent another tragedy like Sandy Hook. The resolution outlines several legislative measures concerning mental health and gun control, such as supporting the federal banning of high-capacity assault weapons and universal background checks. (Click here to read it in full.)
Philips's resolution was not on the agenda Monday night because Council Chairman Joe Kubic (R-9) declined to add it, Philips said before the meeting. The Councilwoman called Kubic's dissent "inexcusable." Kubic explained his opposition in an interview with the Stratford Star:
"I just don't think the resolution that Stephanie proposed is appropriate for Monday’s meeting in light of the fact that we already have a resolution to rename a school in honor of Victoria Soto scheduled before the council."
As members and friends of the Soto family awaited a vote on the school, several Council members lambasted Philips for pushing the resolution on a night that they said "was supposed to be a positive evening," in Kubic's words.
Councilman James Connor (R-8) railed on Philips, saying she didn't reach out to the Soto family when drafting the resolution, which she rebuffed. He said her motivation was politics and labeled the Democratic Town Committee (DTC) "responsible for losing sight" of tonight's purpose, to honor Victoria Soto. Nine members of the DTM spoke in favor of the resolution and commended Philips for drafting it.
"When everyone tells me it's not political, it's political," Connor said.
"Tonight was supposed to be about honoring Soto until Philips came in with her own agenda," Councilman Ken Poisson (R-6) added.
Catalano said the resolution should include more input from fellow Council members and the public before it's brought to the table.
Councilman Craig Budnick (R-7) said it was "upsetting to see conversation more about Philips than Soto [but] we need to have this conversation [about legislative measures] and we will have this conversation."
"When will we be moved to action?" Philips said. "If not now, when?"
Jim Wiltsie, a Soto relative, told WTNH he was "a little disappointed" with the sometimes contentious display of the Council members. "We didn't want the direction of the meeting to go that way," he said. "Tonight was supposed to be about honoring Vicki's legacy."