Five years after Sandy Hook, the legacy of gun violence lives on in Newtown’s new school

This is a different kind of remembering.
This is a different kind of remembering.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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Five years ago today, a man murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza fired his Bushmaster rifle through the school’s locked front door and commenced a killing spree. At the time, it was the second deadliest mass shooting in US history. What seemed to shake the nation the most was the age of the victims, children who were just six and seven years old.

While Congress debated gun law reform in Washington, DC, residents of Newtown, Connecticut were crafting their own response to the tragedy. It was their community and their children who had been affected. How should the victims be remembered?

Five years later, Newtown has yet to answer that question. Residents remain divided over what exactly a permanent memorial to the shooting should look like, or even where one should be located.

The absence of a memorial doesn’t mean the absence of remembrance, but rather the absence of a specific place around which to centralize mourning. Visitors wishing to pay their respects in the months after the attack, unsure of where to do so, almost invariably ended up at the school. And so, instead of offering a chance to grieve and reflect but ultimately leave, the remodeled Sandy Hook Elementary is a different kind of memorial. Here, the legacy of gun violence in the US is lived, day in and day out, by the current faculty and students, for whom omnipresent security cameras and routine active shooter drills have become the norm.

At first, Newtown didn’t know what to do with the school. Students from Sandy Hook were moved to a school in nearby Monroe until the town made a decision about what to do with the building that bore the marks of the town’s darkest day. Should it be demolished or renovated? Moved to another location, or rebuilt on the same site? A unanimous agreement was never reached. But after much deliberation, a new Sandy Hook Elementary was built in the same location as—but not the same footprint as—the old school, which was razed in 2013. Three years later, the new Sandy Hook Elementary opened its doors for the 2016-2017 school year.

Boasting high glass windows and colorful wood paneling, the new building is set in the woods of Newtown, featuring a rain garden and classrooms clustered around outdoor courtyards. What it does not have, however, is a memorial to those killed in the December 14th attack—the presence of which was deemed “inappropriate” by first selectman Patricia Llodra, who heads Newtown’s government board. Llorda feared that building a memorial on school grounds would open the space up to unwanted public traffic. Such fears were not unfounded–even while it was still an active crime scene, police had to fend off well-wishers attempting to gain access to the site.

Instead, she established the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission, a group of 12 locals—including two architects, a grant writer, and four parents who lost children in the attack—who were charged with helping to select and implement a permanent memorial elsewhere in the community.

And yet, five years on, there is still no memorial. In fact, the commission only just released its call for design proposals—the first step (pdf) in a process that is expected to take up to two years. This timeline is not entirely unexpected, however. Newtown’s government made an intentional decision to rebuild the school before tackling the memorial, citing both the immediate needs of the community and financial and logistical concerns.

On a less pragmatic level, however, building the memorial first would have prolonged the town’s dwelling in a painful past. Erecting the new school was a chance for the Sandy Hook community to look forward, to rebuild and try to heal. The memorial and the school are meant to stand at opposite chronological ends of the Sandy Hook story, one gesturing at the past and the other towards the future.

While the memorial’s guidelines (pdf) stipulate that it should be a place to “freely engage in peaceful reflection,” the school’s commitment to its educational mission translates to a space devoid of any explicit mentions of Dec. 14. And yet all the bright colors and cheery decor of the new Sandy Hook Elementary couldn’t keep the past from seeping in.

Despite the desire to keep the grounds memorial-free, ignoring the history of the school altogether would prove impossible. Llodra understood that returning parents and teachers would need to be convinced measures had been taken to prevent future attacks. While the design guidelines insisted the new site include “state of the art security technology,” balancing safety with acceptable aesthetics for an elementary school meant that many of the security features (pdf) are so integrated into the new facility that they are hardly recognizable.

The rain garden, for example, forms something like a shallow moat between the parking lot and school, serving as both a learning tool and a natural first line of defense. The abundance of windows and visibility across courtyards provides an innate form of surveillance and quicker identification of unwanted intruders. The woods behind the school offer another natural protective barrier—or, in the worst-case scenario, a dense shelter to hide in.

To say that Newtown does not yet have a memorial to Sandy Hook is misleading. If the point of a memorial is to commemorate the past in the present, nowhere is the past more palpable than in the new Sandy Hook Elementary. Even the beautiful windows are made of impact-resistant glass—a direct response to Lanza’s entrance on Dec. 14. There is no greater testament to what the town lived through than this building, and its promise to never let it happen again. At the same time, the heightened security measures that define the school make the town’s violent history inescapable.

This is a different kind of remembering; one that, rather than commemorating the past as past, collapses it into the present. Of course, this makes history more visceral and exigent. But it may also make it difficult to move on from horrific events like the Sandy Hook shooting. This is not a kind of memorialization that provides closure; it’s a kind that prevents it. At a moment when gun violence feels like an uncontrollable epidemic, the new Sandy Hook Elementary reflects our collective anxieties and insecurities rather than assuaging them. Perhaps there is no better testament to the legacy of gun violence in the US than this failure to prevent the troubles of our past from pervading our present.