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Reopen Sandy Hook? Lessons from other shooting sites

Julio Cortez / AP file

Community members will have to decide whether eventually to reopen Sandy Hook Elementary School after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults on Dec. 14.

Classes are set to resume Tuesday in Newtown, Conn. -- everywhere but at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults on Friday.

The school has been closed indefinitely, authorities said Monday, while law enforcement officials process the crime scene, a grim task that could take months. 

But what happens after the investigation to the site at 12 Dickinson Drive remains in unclear. Whether it can -- or should -- reopen to serve 525 kindergarten through fourth-graders depends on how the community and the children respond, experts say.

For now, some local parents say it’s too soon to tell.

“I haven’t even given it any thought,” said Andrew Paley, 40, of Sandy Hook, father of 9-year-old twins Ben and Ethan, both Sandy Hook students who were at the school during Friday’s rampage. 

Students from Sandy Hook are set to begin classes soon at Chalk Hill School in nearby Monroe, district officials said. The building has not been used as a school for 18 months, according to local press reports, and is being renovated quickly to accommodate the Sandy Hook classes. Though there is no firm date for them to start in the new site, being together in class should help students begin to heal, experts said.

It’s important for young children to resume normal routines as quickly as possible, said Amy Smith, president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

“For kids to recover from an event like this, they need to be safe and they need to believe they are safe,” Smith said. 

But whether the student Sandy Hook students at those kids -- or any children -- can return to the Sandy Hook site, a building where youngsters and adults were shot, most multiple times, is doubtful, said Dr. Liza Gold, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School.

“You have to think about what’s going to help these kids most in terms of regaining a sense of safety and minimizing the effects of trauma,” Gold said. “You can’t bring them back to that school. You have to think of it as a place that has been contaminated.”

Across the U.S., schools and other venues that have been the site of mass shootings have had to grapple with the question of what to do with the buildings.

For some, it’s been a matter of removing all signs of carnage and getting students back to class as quickly as possible. At Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., the cafeteria that was the site of a 1998 shooting opened less than a week after freshman Kip Kinkel opened fire, killing two students and wounding 24.

But at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo., the school was closed for four months after an April 1999 shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher, plus the two gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The school’s library, where much of the attack occurred, was replaced with an airy atrium and a new library was built elsewhere on campus.

Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall, the primary site of a 2007 shooting that left 32 victims and the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, dead, eventually was reconfigured and renovated. The second floor space was turned into the school’s center for Peace Studies & Violence Prevention, said spokesman Mark Owczarski.

“In essence, the building continues,” he said. “It has a new life, a new look.”

In Aurora, Colo., the movie theater where gunman James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 in July will reopen next month, according a letter from Tim Warner, president and chief executive of Cinemark. The company made the decision to refurbish the Aurora Century Theater after surveying the community. Victims and their families will be invited to the site to visit before the opening on Jan. 17. 

But some spaces have not been reclaimed. The one-room Amish schoolhouse that was the site of a 2006 shooting was razed after Charles Roberts opened fire on a dozen girls barricaded inside, eventually killing five. A new schoolhouse was built on a different site in Nickel Mines, in Lancaster County, Pa., according to press accounts.

“I thought there was a widespread feeling in the community that it was important to remove the building,” community spokesman Herman Bontrager told USA Today at the time. “Especially for the children, but not only for the children.”

Only time will tell if the Sandy Hook Elementary School site can be resurrected enough to feel safe for kids, said Gold.

“If you think about a workplace setting, adults could work through that trauma,” she said. “A little kid might not even understand what is disturbing to them.”

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