Newtown Faces the Uncomfortable Question of What to Do With Sandy Hook

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Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
May 9 2013 3:31 PM

Newtown Faces the Uncomfortable Question of What to Do With Sandy Hook

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A sign welcoming children from Sandy Hook Elementry school sits on the road in Monroe, Connecticut on January 3, 2013. Students at the elementary school where a gunman massacred 26 children and teachers last month were returning Thursday to classes at an alternative campus described by police as 'the safest school in America'

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

What do you do with the site of a mass murder? We feel like we've been asking that depressing question a lot lately. Now, it's Newtown's turn to find its own answer.

Since the December 14 shooting, former Sandy Hook students have gone to school at a middle school in a neighboring town. That's a temporary solution. As the Wall Street Journal notes, there's some tension in the community over the more permanent options:

The 28-member town committee had announced April 19 it had settled on three options: renovating Sandy Hook Elementary; building a new school at the site; or constructing a new school nearby. But on Friday, the panel said it also would study reusing a Newtown intermediate school or moving Sandy Hook Elementary to a former mental hospital campus that now includes a municipal town center and a youth academy.
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It seems that the latter option was raised after teachers strongly opposed any option that would have them return to the original building. While at least one district parent interviewed by the Journal suggested that the teachers were strong-arming the process, the teachers are definitely not alone in their reluctance to teach in the same spot where their students and colleagues were murdered. A parent of one of the children killed in the massacre had this to say at the meeting:

"We'd like it to be back in Newtown at a new location and not at the location where Olivia was killed," said Brian Engel, whose 6-year-old daughter died at Sandy Hook, at the meeting. "Our family has not asked for anything since Dec. 14 except for the building…[to] be razed and the new Sandy Hook School be located at a new location."

The Newtown town committee will make a recommendation on Friday. After the Newtown School Board makes their decision based on the committee's recommendation, a public referendum will be called.

Sadly, there are precedents for how to handle a school where a mass shooting unfolded. Columbine High School, which underwent a huge renovation in 1995 just a few years before tragedy unfolded, was renovated again to the tune of $1.2 million to remove as many traces as possible of the massacre there. Virginia Tech, similarly, opted to renovate rather than raze the site of the 2007 mass shooting on their campus.

A similar debate—to raze or to renovate—also played out very publicly at the site of the Aurora, Colorado theater where 12 people were killed and 60 wounded during last summer's mass shooting there. The theater has already reopened, though not without controversy. Some of the victims' families wanted the entire theater town down, with a memorial erected in its place. At the time of the January reopening, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper summed up the difficulty faced by anyone who has to make a decision like this: "Some wanted this theater to reopen. Some didn't. Certainly both answers are correct."

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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