An offense against humanity of the scope and emotional impact of the 12/14 massacre at the Sandy Hook School raises a succession of questions that never seems to end. None of the answers are easy to come by, even the empirical ones that the law enforcement community is seeking with its protracted investigation. Loss, grief, and the uncertain and sometimes tragic nature of the human condition inevitably raise eternal questions that lie at the heart of faith and life’s purpose. Out of this daunting mix of imponderables, however, a question has arisen that Newtown is perfectly suited to answer: What is a school?
In the wake of 12/14, it quickly became clear that the most serious damage to Sandy Hook School was not to the structure itself, but to the essence of education it housed, embodied in the lives of children and their teachers. The delicate and priceless architecture of learning is not a thing of blueprints but of relationships between educators and students, dependent on an environment where trust, encouragement, and confidence can thrive. The 28 members of the Sandy Hook School Building Task Force quickly understood that that environment of learning was also a casualty of that tragic day. They unanimously recommended the demolition of the existing school and the construction of a new one. In answering the question What is a school?, they correctly concerned themselves with the psychological foundations of education rather than the economics of real estate development.
The construction of a $46 million school, however, does pose its own set of economic questions, both for a town inclined to reject budgets with anything but the most marginal increases in spending and a state perennially struggling to make ends meet. It is a testament to the profound emotional impact of Newtown’s tragedy on the entire state that state legislators on both sides of the aisle came through on a commitment made in those first dark December days to “make Newtown whole.” The legislature passed a $2 billion state bonding package in the closing days of the last session that sets aside $50 million for the construction of a new school in Sandy Hook. And efforts are underway by Connecticut’s congressional delegation in Washington to share the economic burden with Hartford beyond the millions in grants for security and other tragedy-related expenses already announced. It turns out there are a lot of people normally predisposed to argue, delay, and derail who are now prepared set aside their usual political inclinations to help Newtown through this difficult phase of its recovery.
With such extraordinary financial support coming Newtown’s way, the state and nation will be watching to see not only how our community handles tragedy but how it seizes opportunity. Eventually, two local referendums on the school project will give every Newtown voter a chance to address that opportunity. Now is the time, however, to lay the groundwork and marshal volunteer resources so that our community can answer the question What is a school? definitively with heart and intelligence.