Newtown, Connecticut: Confronting imperfect options, but in a spirit more hopeful than resigned, a task force of local leaders on Friday unanimously recommended tearing down Sandy Hook Elementary School and building a new one on the site where a gunman massacred 26 children and adults on December 14 last year.
In a meeting that addressed issues of land use, eminent domain, grief, traffic and even the two ducks who lay their eggs at the school every year, members of the 28-person task force in the end came down to two options: The current site or one about 200 yards down the road.
They heard from half a dozen community members, all of whom urged a return to the school site.
“We’re going home,” said Lorna Szalay, the school’s kitchen manager, as she hugged parents after the decision was reached.
Last week, the task force heard from teachers and a couple who had lost their child, saying it would be too painful to return. But on Friday, residents said the school was a central part of the community and that it would be a triumph over tragedy to return there.
“Call me crazy, call me insensitive, but I would go back to that school tomorrow,” said Mergim Bajraliu, a local high school student, who rushed to the school that morning and who, with his two siblings, went to Sandy Hook. One is still a student at Sandy Hook.
The recommendation will now go to the local school board and would need the approval of local residents, who will vote in a referendum later this year.
The task force reviewed four sites at the meeting on Friday and then narrowed the options to two. Each would cost between $42 million (Dh154 million) and $47 million, with the state and federal governments expected to pick up the cost.
The 430 surviving students are attending a renovated school renamed Sandy Hook Elementary School in the neighbouring town of Monroe. Task force members said the new site, which would have to be taken through eminent domain, could take longer to open as a school and provided little distance from the tragedy. Many parents preferred a new school on the old site and some feared the rancor that could come with seizing land for a new school.
The process of picking a new school has been an agonising one, mirroring those at other schools where there have been shooting tragedies. At Columbine High School in Colorado, where a shooting rampage in 1999 by two students killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher in 1999 and injured 24 others, the school reopened several months later with the library, where most of the victims had died, taken apart and replaced with an atrium.
At Virginia Tech, a classroom building where an armed student killed 32 people in 2007 was converted to a peace studies and violence prevention centre. The West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, where a gunman killed five girls in 2006, was torn down and a new school was built a few hundred yards away.
The Newtown task force had hoped to offer a recommendation on May 3 but after an emotional session with Sandy Hook teachers opposed to returning to the site, the group concluded a five-hour meeting without deciding what to do. The reactions from teachers and others associated with the tragedy made it clear just how difficult any attempt to salvage the existing building would be for some parents and teachers.
The task force began with a list of 40 possible locations. It investigated issues including enrolment patterns and more technical ones related to site selection, including traffic patterns, sewer and utility issues, land grade and the presence of wetlands. It boiled them down to two, the original school site and one nearby, but then reconsidered two others at a meeting last week.
Most vexing has been the emotional decision of whether to return to the original site, either with a renovated school or a new one at the same site, or to make the site a permanent memorial and place the school elsewhere. For many in the community, particularly teachers and families who lost students, returning to Sandy Hook is unthinkable.
“To me, that is always going to be a site where 26 people were murdered,” one panel member, Laura Roche, said at last week’s meeting. But on Friday, she voted with the other members for a new school at the old site as the best available option.
The longer the process went on, the more it became clear that there was no solution without costs and pain, said Patricia Llodra, the first selectwoman and a member of the task force.
“We all wanted a wonderful solution that would satisfy everyone and we realised that wasn’t going to happen,” she said. “But I think we reached a point where we could make a positive decision that we feel is the right thing to do.
“It’s going to be a happy place full of children and learning. We need to make this work, and we will. We will.”