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Column: Living Where Lives Were Lost: What To Do With the Site of a Mass Shooting

  • The field that once was the location of the West Nickel Mines Amish School is seen in Nickel Mines, Pa., Tuesday morning, Oct. 2, 2007. One year ago at the West Nickel Mines Amish School, gunman Charles C. Roberts IV killed five girls and wounded five others before taking his own life. The school has long since been razed and replaced with overgrown pasture, in part to prevent it from being treated as some sort of shrine or becoming a tourist attraction. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    The field that once was the location of the West Nickel Mines Amish School is seen in Nickel Mines, Pa., Tuesday morning, Oct. 2, 2007. One year ago at the West Nickel Mines Amish School, gunman Charles C. Roberts IV killed five girls and wounded five others before taking his own life. The school has long since been razed and replaced with overgrown pasture, in part to prevent it from being treated as some sort of shrine or becoming a tourist attraction. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • Shadows are cast on the wall of the Columbine Memorial by visitors after a memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in the southwest Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., on Monday, April 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

    Shadows are cast on the wall of the Columbine Memorial by visitors after a memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in the southwest Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., on Monday, April 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

  • Virginia Tech campus ministers gather on the the second floor of Norris Hall, the building where the April 16, 2007 massacre took place, to pray for the victims, friends, relatives and Tech students, Monday April 13, 2009 in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)

    Virginia Tech campus ministers gather on the the second floor of Norris Hall, the building where the April 16, 2007 massacre took place, to pray for the victims, friends, relatives and Tech students, Monday April 13, 2009 in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)

  • The field that once was the location of the West Nickel Mines Amish School is seen in Nickel Mines, Pa., Tuesday morning, Oct. 2, 2007. One year ago at the West Nickel Mines Amish School, gunman Charles C. Roberts IV killed five girls and wounded five others before taking his own life. The school has long since been razed and replaced with overgrown pasture, in part to prevent it from being treated as some sort of shrine or becoming a tourist attraction. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Shadows are cast on the wall of the Columbine Memorial by visitors after a memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in the southwest Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., on Monday, April 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
  • Virginia Tech campus ministers gather on the the second floor of Norris Hall, the building where the April 16, 2007 massacre took place, to pray for the victims, friends, relatives and Tech students, Monday April 13, 2009 in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)

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 this month 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 pasture land 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.

“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 is 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.”

Sometimes, consensus never arrives.

This year, some victims’ family members protested the reopening of the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were gunned down last summer, calling it “disgusting” and “appalling.” The company that owns the building had renovated it, altering its name and changing the numbered theaters to letters, so that Theater 9 became Auditorium I, an overhauled theater with no physical marker to commemorate the shooting.

The company also invited survivors of the shooting, families of those who died and first responders to a “special evening of remembrance” to mark the reopening. Some came; others boycotted.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper acknowledged the divide. “Everyone heals, some slower, some in different ways. Some wanted this theater to reopen, some didn’t,” he said before a showing of the The Hobbit.

It’s too early to know what will become of the Navy Yard’s Building 197, where a dozen people perished just days ago. At another military installation, at Fort Hood, Texas, the building where a shooter killed 13 people in 2009 remains closed and until recently had been preserved as a crime scene. A year after the massacre, officials erected a stone on the base inscribed with the victims’ names.

The inquiries into Aaron Alexis’s past and his motives in the Navy Yard shootings will continue. But at some point, a decision must come about the fate of Building 197.

This much is certain, said Harwood, who helped officials in Newtown wrestle with the same question:

“There are no perfect solutions. ...There’s a coming to grips with the idea that you can’t turn back the clock. You can’t undo what happened. We have to deal with what is.”

Brady Dennis is a health and science reporter for The Washington Post.