Sandy Hook's Surviving 1st Graders Graduate High School: 'Monumental' but Tinged with 'Sorrow' (Exclusive)

"To graduate and miss 20 kids out of your class, there's no way to go about it without remembering them," one student tells PEOPLE

<p><a href="">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> From left: Sandy Hook 2012 shooting survivors and 2024 high school graduates Henry Terifay, Grace Fischer, Emma Ehrens, Matt Holden, Ella Seaver and Lilly Wasilnak

It’s been 12 years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 first graders and six educators dead before the gunman took his own life.

Now the surviving first graders are graduating and entering adulthood, a major and emotionally complicated milestone, they say.

"A lot of it has been like, 'Oh my God, you're graduating high school, this is kind of a monumental moment in your life,' but it always kind of has that touch of sorrow when you realize what's missing," 18-year-old Ella Seaver told PEOPLE in an interview in the days before receiving her diploma from Newtown High School along with 333 other students on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 12.

More than a decade after the shooting, Seaver and other kids at school that December morning in 2012 can vividly recall how the chaos unfolded — and the long shadow it cast over their lives.

For more from the Sandy Hook survivors and new grads, read next week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands June 21.

Seaver was just "two classrooms down from the two classrooms that were attacked," she says.

Lilly Wasilnak, 17, was another student in Seaver's class. In some ways, the shooting defined her entire life: "I think it's hard to exactly know what changed, because for me, this is all I've ever known."

That also pushed her and some of the other new graduates to action to prevent more bloodshed.

Survivors including Wasilnak, Matt Holden, Emma Ehrens and others are members of the anti-gun violence Jr. Newtown Action Alliance.

"For me, everything I do is for them [the shooting's victims]," Wasilnak says.

Related: Sandy Hook Survivor, 17, Tells Her Story for First Time Since Tragedy 10 Years Ago: 'I Thought I Was Going to Die'

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> Survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting and now Newtown High School 2024 graduates including Ella Seaver (center)

Anjelica Jardiel

Survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting and now Newtown High School 2024 graduates including Ella Seaver (center)

Wednesday's graduation ceremony was closed to the press "due to the sensitive nature of the event and the varied perspectives of each individual student and family," the district's superintendent, Christopher Melillo, said.

But special time was reserved for the 20 students killed in 2012: Their names were read aloud in tribute.

Graduates also wore green ribbons emblazoned with "Forever in Our Hearts."

"To graduate and miss 20 kids out of your class, there's no way to go about it without remembering them," Wasilnak says.

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The shooting was seen by many as a turning point in the country's ongoing problems with gun violence — a feeling shared by some of the survivors and graduates.

"I just don't want to hear 'our prayers are with you,' because unfortunately your prayers don't really do anything for me," Henry Terifay, 18, told PEOPLE. "I just really want things to be different."

In 2022, on the 10th anniversary of the shooting, former President Barack Obama reflected on Sandy Hook, describing it as the “single darkest day of my presidency.”

<p>Robert Nickelsberg/Getty </p> The Sandy Hook 2012 school shooting

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

The Sandy Hook 2012 school shooting

"The news from Sandy Hook Elementary was devastating, a visceral blow, and like so many others, I felt not just sorrow but anger at a world that could allow such things to happen," he said at the time.

Obama also said the families impacted by the shooting have "borne that weight with strength and grace," adding that they've "drawn purpose from tragedy — doing everything in their power to make sure other children and families never have to experience what they and their loved ones did."

Related: Barack Obama Reflects on 'Single Darkest Day of My Presidency' on 10-Year Anniversary of Sandy Hook Shooting

President Joe Biden, who was the vice president at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting, in 2022 signed the first major piece of anti-gun violence legislation in the country in years after it overwhelmingly passed Congress.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act "enhances certain restrictions and penalties on firearms purchases; promotes evidence-based best practices for school safety; authorizes grants to expand access to mental health services; and appropriates emergency funding for mental health resources and school safety measures," according to the White House.

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