Locations of shootings often rehabilitated or demolished


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Like people, places are gone but not forgotten.

After most major school shooting incidents, administrators and parents move to demolish or heavily rehabilitate the classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums and other spaces where students were murdered. Just two days since 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at a school in Newtown, Conn., it is too early to know exactly what administrators will do with facilities at Sandy Hook Elementary, but past tragedies are a guide.

The Stanton Heights neighbors of Richard Poplawski wanted the home where he shot to death three Pittsburgh police officer in April 2009 demolished and left alone.

Mortgage holders JP Morgan Chase bought the boarded-up Fairfield Street house at auction 18 months later, the city razed it within a week, and it remains a grass void two years later. There is no memorial or marker.

Demolition "helps people heal. It gives you a sense of control that, if you eliminate this, you can move on," said Brian Devinney, 42, who was tidying his parents' front lawn across Fairfield on Saturday. "It gives you a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation, a situation that is unfathomable."

Time and again schools have tried to erase the physical marks of shooting sites, usually with charitable help from the outside.

After a gunman massacred 16 children and an adult in a school gymnasium in Dunblane, Scotland, in March 1996, school officials tore down the gym a month later, a few days before children returned to school after an Easter break. A local contractor donated the cost of the work and new gym was built two years later.

"It allows the parents of Dunblane to draw a line under the events, and enables us to look to the future to build upon what's happening here today," the school board's chairman, Mike Robbins, said at the time of the demolition. "It takes away that focal point and allows the teachers in particular to think ahead and to plan for the kids coming back on Monday after the Easter holiday."

Columbine High School outside Denver went through a $15.6 million renovation in 1995 and was rebuilt again four years later after two students murdered 12 classmates and a teacher and injured 21 others on April 20, 1999. Students spent the last three weeks of the school year at a rival high school, and graduation was held at a nearby amphitheater.

Through the summer, 500 to 600 workers volunteered time for the $1.2 million renovation of the school, which included tearing out bullet-strewn carpeting and ceiling tiles and replacing it with tile and glass, new paint and furniture in a cafeteria strafed with gunfire, and sealing off a library a floor above where 10 were murdered. The library would later be demolished and replaced with a glass atrium.

Since alarms shrieked throughout the Columbine incident -- similar to what has been reported at Sandy Hook on Friday -- workers replaced them, too. The day students returned in August parents lined streets to shield them from the media.

The one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, where a 32-year-old gunman took 10 Amish girls hostage and murdered five of them, was torn down 10 days after the shootings in October 2006. Within six months another was built nearby, with a private drive and better locks, and funded with donations made to the victims. Stricken family families attended the funeral of the shooter, who was a milk truck driver, and donated money to his widow.

The deadliest school shooting in U.S. history happened less than six months later at Virginia Tech when a student gunman murdered 32, most of them on the second floor of a science building called Norris Hall. The building was closed for the rest of the spring and the second floor received a $1 million makeover, much of it with donated materials and labor, that included a home for the school's Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

Sandy Hook is one of four elementary schools in the Newtown Public School District and built in 1956. It will be closed next week in advance of holiday recess and no plans were released for the district's scheduled return to school Jan. 2.

Memories never erased

Mr. Devinney, whose parents Don and Johann bought the Stanton Heights house across from the Poplawskis in 1989, teaches U.S. history at Pine-Richland High School. He is among those who think that Sandy Hook children and teachers should eventually return to that school, which unlike the once falling-apart Poplawski house can still serve a purpose.

Many public spaces that were the site of mass shootings -- from movie theaters to malls, churches and gyms -- have reopened after the passage of time.

After three women were murdered at an LA Fitness in Collier in August 2009, it reopened three weeks later.

The Aurora, Colo., theater where 12 were killed in July during a showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" is set to reopen next month.

Even if the whole Sandy Hook building were demolished, it could not erase the memory of the crimes or those murdered there, any more than they have of the police officers on tiny Pittsburgh dead-end street.

Leaning on his broom on Fairfield Street, Mr. Divinney said, "The physical representation of what happened is gone. Of course the empty space there is itself a symbol of what happened."

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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