Text by Daryl Khan | Photos by Robert Stolarik
NEWTOWN, Conn. — Nearly one year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the town has struggled to reclaim its identity as a quaint New England town. A “Welcome to Sandy Hook” sign of angels hung along highway 34.
Sandy Hook Elementary School has been razed.
The process of destroying the school — where last year Adam Lanza, a socially awkward 20-year old, massacred 20 first-grade students and six teachers and staff in a matter of minutes — began earlier in the year and is now nearly complete. It was a secretive project. Construction workers who participated in the demolition of the site were forced by town officials to sign nondisclosure agreements promising not to speak about their work or to take pictures or video recordings. They remain forbidden from removing so much as a brick from the site. Officials promised they are having all the debris hauled away and destroyed at a clandestine location.
They have recently warned that the site of the school is contaminated. At a recent council meeting, it was revealed that there were higher than expected levels of lead, asbestos, and PCBs in the construction debris collected from the leveled site. A glance at the area around the school reflects the fact that this is indeed treated like poisoned land.
Last year, the road leading from the small downtown of Sandy Hook was lined with all manner of makeshift tributes to the victims of the shooting. Piles of flowers, stuffed animals, letters scrawled on scrap paper cut into the shape of hearts taped to utility poles, votive candles in rows of 26 could be found everywhere around the school. Now, nearly a year later, those dedications have been swept away. In their place are rows of municipal signs warning visitors away. DO NOT ENTER. No Parking Anytime. No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Prosecuted.
A wrought-iron gate blocks the entrance to the site where the school, built in 1956, once stood. A video monitor is mounted above the gate next to another sign that reads: Electronic Surveillance Equipment In Use, with an image of a camera on it. Last year, mourners hung handmade foil stars with names of the dead children off the bushes and trees near the entrance to the school. They have been replaced with pink and blue ribbons tied on by Newtown officials indicating spots for soil testing.
Aerial shots of the site show a dirt field, mostly landfill, crisscrossed with the tracks of construction vehicles. Next to the flattened site are gravel piles of varying size and patterns. From above, they look like massive primitive grave mounds.
A new school is slated to be completed by 2016.
“We can do better than this”
While local officials are preoccupied with wiping any physical trace of the school off the face of the earth, it’s the memory, and the enormity of what occurred there, that has become a touchstone for all manner of public policy reform across the state, and the nation. As the residents of Newtown deal with the stigma of the tragedy, advocates, politicians and experts still invoke their notorious hometown to call for change in state houses and school houses across the country.
The Sunday after the shooting, President Barack Obama visited Newtown and delivered a speech in a crammed auditorium at the local high school. He promised to concentrate the powers of his office on preventing another massacre.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,” he said. “We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.”
But, he added, the nation had an “obligation to try.” And, they have — local officials, advocates, policy experts, and even the parents of the slain children — have worked to “do better.” The president started a conversation that night that put mental health reform at the forefront of political discourse like it had never been before. It is a conversation that still continues today less than a week removed from the anniversary of the killings.
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