New school will come equipped with anti-shrapnel walls and reinforced glass, but the issue of whether armed guards are needed to protect its students – and whether the town can afford it – still divides Newtown two years after shooting
The school from which 20 young children never came home is all gone now, torn down to expose a muddy field dusted with snow and locked behind a high-security fence. But here, over the coming months, Sandy Hook elementary school is being built anew. Pupils from the Connecticut village, which will on Sunday quietly mark the second anniversary of Adam Lanza’s appalling massacre, are scheduled to return in 2016 to a building now being constructed at the same site, with security designed by experts behind the new World Trade Center in New York. They will be shielded in specially shaped classrooms by reinforced glass and anti-shrapnel walls that few in the US could oppose following a series of high-profile campus shootings. But outside, wandering among trees carefully placed to provide a natural barricade while allowing sight of potential intruders, will likely be more divisive safety features: men with guns. Two armed guards were assigned to Sandy Hook, which is currently operating from a disused school nearby, under plans for the surrounding town of Newtown drawn up earlier this year by Patricia Llodra, its Republican first selectman – a mayor-style role. The armed detail, twice the size of that given to most other local public schools, is restricted to retired police officers. The patrols recall the controversial statement of the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre following the 2012 tragedy that “a good guy with a gun” was the best way to stop armed intruders rather than new firearms laws. And not everyone with a stake in the recovery of Sandy Hook, where six staff also died, is sure that they are a helpful addition to school life. “It’s a gun in a school,” said Brian Coulombe, a principal at DVS, a security consulting and engineering firm, who is a member of the Sandy Hook design team after spending eight years on the rebuilding at ground zero after 9/11. “I prefer there not to be guns, because it introduces the potential for an accident,” said Coulombe, who grew up in a neighbouring town. Some doubt that exposing the village’s children to more firearms is worthwhile. Last week a group of surviving Sandy Hook teachers expressed scepticism about whether an armed guard would even have stopped Lanza. “If there had been someone at the entrance to our school with a gun, they would have been dead, too,” Mary Ann Jacobs, the librarian, told CBS. Precedent is seized upon by both sides. Opponents of armed guards point out that one stationed at Columbine high school in Colorado failed to prevent the massacre of 13 people there in April 1999. Proponents stress that he engaged one of the shooters and may have prevented them from causing more carnage. Others are concerned more about the practicalities. Michele Gay, whose daughter Josephine died at Sandy Hook and who now runs Safe and Sound, a security non-profit, warned that armed guards were an “expensive undertaking” for schools. “This is not the wild west, where everyone is given a badge and a gun and they’re the sheriff,” said Gay. “We certainly wouldn’t want anyone carrying a firearm that wasn’t highly trained.” Working out how to pay for its new half-million-dollar school security budget is indeed a quandary for this quiet and fiscally conservative town of about 28,000 people, whose three state representatives and state senator are all Republicans. Residents last year voted down an expanded $72m schools budget featuring $770,000 for security. “We’re very fragile as a community,” Llodra explained at the time. “We’ve lost some of our confidence.” In a town finance board meeting last month, Llodra warned that a grant from the US Justice Department that had helped meet security costs so far would expire midway through next year. “We will be short $150,000,” said Bob Tait, the town’s finance director. Town leaders resolved to muddle through and make up the deficit. “The goal is to bring forth a budget with no tax increase,” said Llodra, according to the official minutes. The town received tens of thousands of dollars in cash donations to a Sandy Hook fund. Finance board documents indicate that earlier this year, $25,000 of this was used to pay the excess on an insurance claim for a flooded library that is not in Sandy Hook, $15,000 was spent on consultants to prepare a “tick-borne disease awareness” marketing campaign and $5,000 went towards publishing a “Newtown look book”. Through her assistant, Llodra declined several requests to comment. The new school itself is being funded by a special $50m grant from the state of Connecticut. Those involved in the extraordinary design effort stress that the money is being used sparingly on features that represent the most advanced thinking on school security rather than on expensive hardware that is aggressively pushed by an increasingly lucrative industry. “People will often say ‘Oh we have some money, let’s put up cameras,’” said Coulombe. “But cameras don’t really do anything to stop anybody.” Designers were determined to avoid turning the construction into something resembling a detention centre that would undermine the school as a welcoming place for children to learn and play through formative years. “We really don’t need to build a fortress to keep people out,” said Coulombe. Attention has instead been focused on elements that might delay an assailant by just the few more minutes that police would have needed to halt Lanza, who fired 155 rounds in five minutes after shooting through the front entrance. “You can count the minutes and seconds and relate it to the extent of injury and lethality,” said Bob Ducibella, a founder of Coulombe’s firm and a member of Governor Dannel Malloy’s Sandy Hook advisory commission. The car-window-like tempered glass that Lanza easily shattered to get around the school’s locked front door will be replaced with laminated glazing that is very tough but not bulletproof, which would be too expensive and too heavy. Teachers will be able to lock their classrooms from the inside – an impossibility that was shocking to some in 2012, but which prevailed in many regions to prevent pupils from being able to shut out teachers. “That’ll buy you a good five to eight minutes in a forced entry,” said Ducibella, who said that classrooms were also likely to have escape routes to the outside and into neighbouring rooms through which to flee an armed intruder. The entire school will be shaped like an “E” to further maximise evacuation options. Set further back from the street, the new building will be designed to give visitors a longer time in which to be seen as they approach. It will also be tucked into the neighbouring woods and the ground floor will be raised, giving those inside a better vantage. The parking lot that hosted a chaotic mass of emergency services, anxious parents and media on 14 December 2012 has been designed away, replaced by separate lots for teachers – who will enter with security passes – visitors and school bus drop-offs. These in turn will be separated from the school entrance by small bridges, which should highlight to staff who is approaching and whether they are out of place. Carefully negotiated at a series of meetings with parents, teachers and town leaders, the design is also intended to keep pupils interested. “In America we spend tax dollars on schools, and everybody bitches about taxes, so every school design is optimised into long straight corridors with a series of square rooms,” said Ducibella. “How boring is that?” The veteran security designer said that the Sandy Hook massacre, like the September 11 attacks, had presented a “lighting-rod opportunity for things to be made better” in construction. For Gay, it was also a moment of clarity that she should devote herself to working on making schools safer. “I knew from the moment I stood in the parking lot, before I even knew my daughter had been killed, that there were lessons to be learned and shared,” she said. Workmen came and went from the school site in their trucks this week as Sandy Hook fell quieter still. Most families of the victims, and many others, declined to speak before the anniversary passed. “Sunday for our family will be a day like all of the other days in the past two years – very difficult,” said Gay. However there is a special pain now that “it looks the same outside” as during those darkest days. “We are a work in progress,” she said.