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After attacks, schools erase or remake sites of terror

Newtown official says Sandy Hook decision may take some time

By Winnie Hu
New York Times

At Columbine High School, a glass atrium glistens in the sunlight.

Inside Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall, a peace center grows behind pastel walls.

At Dunblane Primary School in Scotland, a flower garden welcomes students.

These spaces were once something else: the second-floor library where two killers completed the rampage that left 12 fellow high school students and a teacher dead; the classrooms where 30 college students and faculty members were gunned down by another student; and the gymnasium where 16 5- and 6-year-old children and their teacher were fatally shot by an intruder.

School officials in Newtown, Conn., said last week that they had not yet begun to discuss the future of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 first-graders and six staff members were killed. But in the indelible tragedies that came before it, school officials and parents were often so haunted by the violence that they sought to dismantle whole sections of the buildings, ripping out blood-soaked floors and every last chunk of cinder block from the rooms where the killings took place. And when the spaces were put back together, if they were not razed completely, they often had new layouts and amenities that rendered them nearly unrecognizable – which is more or less the point.

These new spaces were typically the culmination of a long and painful healing process for devastated families and communities. Even then, school officials and parents say their wounds are still there, though their scars grow a little thicker with each passing year, as the survivors graduate and new students too young to remember what happened take their place.

“A school should not be a memorial,” said Cindy Stevenson, superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo., where school officials and parents rejected the idea of closing Columbine High School after the shooting. “We don’t ever want to forget those children, but you also need to say a school is a living, growing, vibrant place.”

For now, Sandy Hook remains a crime scene, a bullet-ravaged shell that has become a worldwide symbol of hurt. The school’s more than 400 students will resume classes in January in a former school nearby that is being painstakingly remade to resemble the one they left behind, down to the exact color of the classroom walls. Even their old desks and chairs are being moved over from Sandy Hook.

“All of our efforts have been focused on healing our children and families and restarting school,” William Hart, a Newtown school board member, wrote in an email, saying that “we have been unable to put any energy into planning for the future of that building.”

He added, “I suspect it may be some time before we can do so.”

Many psychologists say that schools torn apart by violence are confronted by the need to provide some continuity to traumatized students and staff members, and the necessity of taking steps to start moving beyond the tragedy so it does not come to define them.

“It’s a balance,” said Peter Langman, a psychologist and the author of the book “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.” “I don’t think there’s any one right way to do this.”

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