On a Friday evening in May, more than two dozen town leaders in Newtown, Conn., voted unanimously to tear down Sandy Hook Elementary School and rebuild on the same site.
The spot where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults last December would, in time, become a different place entirely. Its design would include 26 glass cupolas to honor the victims and a relocated main entrance so that students and teachers wouldn’t have to arrive along the same drive where so many once fled a killer.
The decision, which local residents will vote on in an upcoming referendum, came after months of agonizing over what to do with the building, which has sat empty since the shooting. Some people wanted to renovate the existing school; others wanted to build elsewhere. The committee overseeing the school’s fate considered 40 sites before choosing to stay.
The uncertainty about the future of Sandy Hook Elementary had little to do with bricks and mortar, said Rich Harwood, the founder of a Bethesda, Md.-based consulting group, who served as a facilitator helping Newtown officials arrive at a decision.
“On the surface, it appeared to be about a building,” he said. “In reality, it’s really about a community coming to grips with the trauma and the despair it is feeling. . . . There’s nothing easy about it.”
The mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard last week is but the latest entry in a long list of such tragedies. Each time, in each place, after the funerals and tributes, after the news crews have gone home, each community is left to decide:
What do you do with the place where such violence unfolded?
From Columbine to Virginia Tech to Newtown, from Seal Beach to Oak Creek to Binghamton, communities must balance the desire to memorialize the dead with the need to restore normalcy for the living. But how do you turn a murder scene back into a place of business or learning – or something else? And who gets to make the decision?
What a community chooses often says far more about the people and the place than about the crime.
Ten days after a gunman burst into the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006, killing five girls and injuring others, the local Amish community tore down the building. The spot soon became indistinguishable from the pastureland around it.
Months later, in the January cold, men from the community began building a new schoolhouse a few hundred yards away. There are no markers, no physical memorials of the tragedy that took place nearby.
“The Amish would say buildings and monuments aren’t sacred things,” said Herman Bontrager, who grew up Amish and served as a spokesman for the community after the shooting. “The important things are the people and the memories and the stories. That’s the way you keep their memory alive.”
After the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, school officials took about eight months to ponder what to do with the classrooms in Norris Hall where 30 people were killed. “We felt it was important . . . to take a deep breath and not make a rash decision,” said Provost Mark McNamee, who chaired the university’s task force on what to do with the building.
The university sought ideas from students, faculty members and others on campus. Eventually, it reconfigured the space and used part of it to create the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.