“Someone who perpetrated an act like that shouldn’t change the spirit of a place where good things are happening,” McNamee said, noting that the school created a permanent memorial at another spot on campus. “A good way to honor [the victims’] memories is to have good work flow from that building. . . . We feel like we’ve reclaimed the space.”
Reclaiming the space proved sensitive at Columbine High School after the shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher there in 1999. The first question, as in Newtown, was whether to return to the school at all.
“The general consensus was that if we didn’t go back into that building, the two murderers would have won,” said Frank DeAngelis, the high school’s principal then and today.
After that, the debate was how to memorialize those who died without turning the school into a perpetual shrine. DeAngelis said officials sought opinions from families who lost children, from students who were injured and from teachers who would have to return to the same classrooms.
“We wanted to be sensitive to those needs, but at the same time, we didn’t want to make it a memorial,” DeAngelis said. “We would always remember, but it was a time for the future.”
Officials decided to remove the library, where most of killings had happened and create a two-story atrium. They built a new library onto the school. A memorial to the victims was installed at nearby Clement Park.
In the years since, officials in other places where massacres have occurred, some as far away as Japan, have asked DeAngelis for advice on how to move on and enshrine at the same time. He always gives the same answer: Think hard before you act, because it’s a decision you’ll have to live with every day.
“You’re not going to make everyone happy, but if you get as much input from the community as possible, you can do what you think’s best,” he said. “Inevitably, some people are going to support the decisions, some are not. Every community is different.”
Rarely is the process smooth. Disagreements about what to do with a site of mass violence can lead to crippling conflict. The protracted tug of war over Ground Zero after Sept. 11, 2001, offers an extreme case. But even in smaller places that have suffered fewer casualties, emotions can test a community’s resolve and solidarity, especially as time goes by.
“The people most directly affected by these tragedies are very eager to see the memory of their loved ones enshrined in some way. They want a place where the tragedy they’ve experienced is acknowledged and where they can, in a sense, ensure people never forget,” said Katherine Newman, the dean of the school of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University, who studied the aftermath of mass shootings in Kentucky and Arkansas for her book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.
“But the people who have a job to do – a school to run, a building to operate – say: ‘This isn’t a graveyard. This can’t be a place where the present-day purpose of the institution is so heavily clouded by this tragedy.’ . . . It’s such a fundamental clash; it’s very difficult to resolve.”