New Sandy Hook School Honors the Past & Reclaims the Future After Mass Shooting

New Sandy Hook schoolFor three and a half years, Sandy Hook Elementary School has been robbed of the sounds that were its rightful property: Children's voices. Laughter. Learning. But on August 29, Newtown, Connecticut's students, teachers, and families will file into a newly rebuilt Sandy Hook for the campus's first day of school since an armed man entered the original building on December 14, 2012, and took 26 lives in a matter of minutes.


After the tragic events, fences went up around the school's property, situated at the end of Dickinson Drive. Within a year, the decision had been made to tear down the original building. The state agreed to pay for a brand-new, $50 million school -- and residents voted to build the new structure on the original grounds, albeit farther back on the property. 

According to Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra, the decision to return to the same site was not made easily -- many weighed in, and time and care were put into what that return would look like. "It's been about a three-year journey since the time we made the decision," Llodra tells CafeMom. "Since then we've been planning, designing, wanting to get everything just right."

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The main focus of that planning, of course, is the new 86,800 square foot main building. Designed by New Haven architects Svigals + Partners, the curving two-story wood and glass structure was, as the firm explained, designed to evoke arms reaching out in welcome. Inside, more than 25 state-of-the-art classrooms have been fitted with digital white board technology, not to mention 350-pound stainless steel doors (cleverly made to look like plain wooden classroom doors -- the kind you saw before school shootings seemed like inevitable realities). They automatically lock upon closing and can't be opened from the outside ... an unspoken nod to what occurred and a reminder to all who enter that, should the unthinkable happen again, this time Sandy Hook will be ready. This, though, is the everlasting message and lesson that students see upon entering the building:

Sandy Hook school entrance

There, of course, needed to be a careful balance between rebuilding and remembering. Jay Brotman, AIA, managing Svigals partner, tells CafeMom, "It is our hope that the hard work and care of those involved in the building of this new school can be seen to honor all of those affected by the tragedy that took place." In fact, the site of the first grade classroom where most of the tragedy unfolded is now an unmarked grassy outcrop in the center of a new parking lot. Llodra explains that the question of how to memorialize the original victims is "an ongoing one." She says, "We know there will be a permanent memorial in a different location, but we don't know exactly what that will be. It is a work in progress."

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As for other on-campus memories of the old Sandy Hook, they are present -- if you know where to look. Ducks were incorporated into the school design, on an exterior weather vane and on interior murals at each end of the atrium. The "sculpted ducks in flight, created by Barry Svigals, recall the family of ducks that used to visit the old school," Brotman explains of the images -- ones that also symbolize the hundreds of rubber ducks sent to the school that would become a representation of hope for survivors, bringing joy to kids who feared they'd never again experience that emotion.

Flying ducks, Sandy Hook

There's also Shelley the Turtle, a longtime Sandy Hook mascot. He or she ("We don't really know which one," Llodra admits in a moment of levity) joined the students in their three-year relocation to nearby Monroe and has already returned, settling into some upgraded digs -- a large aquarium built into the walls of the new main central lobby."Our focus has always been to bring our students and our teachers back to our community. It was important to the kids who'll be coming to school here every day to know that Shelley was coming home too," Llodra explains. 

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Still, she acknowledges, the notion of "coming home" will be a difficult one for some to process. "One of our most thoughtful fathers once said to me that the grief journey is as individual as a fingerprint," says Llodra. "Many, most of us, will feel that this return is a step in the right direction of our positive, bright future. But I know that some will feel like it's an ongoing hurt. They are still so impacted that they cannot step foot on this campus."

Those sentiments truly capture the dichotomy of the Sandy Hook rebirth: pleasure at not having let one madman destroy a spot of happiness, and pain at the constant reminder of what once was and is no longer. Of course, there's no denying reality. This community can't go back in time; the only choice is to move forward with the belief that this will be a fresh start for all of Newtown. "My hope for this school," Llodra says, "is that it's a happy place full of love and care for young minds. I want to see clusters of kids, reading, outside, enjoying their recess. That's the positive place that it was. We want to rebuild that culture."


Images courtesy Sandy Hook School; via Melanie Stengel, courtesy Sandy Hook School; courtesy Svigals + Partners

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