Ideas about what to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School building flew fast and furious on Sunday evening, as Newtown community members — including a large contingent of Sandy Hook parents — addressed town officials in a public forum at Newtown High School.
The forum was the first in a series designed to open discussion and test community opinion on the fate of the building at the center of December's tragic shooting that took the lives of 20 students and six educators. The building remains closed as a crime scene while students attend Chalk Hill School in neighboring Monroe.
Speakers and officials alike knew the stakes were high — as commenter Veronica Marr told the crowd, "The eyes of the world are on Newtown" — and First Selectman Pat Llodra opened by assuring Sandy Hook residents and parents their voices would be heard.
Some residents had questioned whether the state would be able to financially support the community's eventual plan. Llodra assured the crowd that the town had support whatever that plan would be.
"I have every confidence that the governor's office, the state legislature, the commission on education and our state and federal representatives will be at the table with us, and will do everything possible to help us achieve what the community decides is right for Sandy Hook and Newtown," she said.
Moderator Fran Pennarola asked the crowd to refrain from applause, but it didn't seem to have much effect: applause of various levels followed many speakers during the frequently emotional meeting.
Some ideas were novel: build a new school at nearby Treadwell Park, and convert the school into a park. And some residents came to make their own suggestions for repurposing the property: a senior center, an observatory extension of the nearby Children's Adventure Center, or a "school for peace education."
NHS senior Mergim Bajralin went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. He told the crowd some of his best childhood memories were at Sandy Hook School — and that his sister, who was at the school Dec. 14, says she misses her school.
"You know, I don't personally think it should be knocked down," he said, listing many of his favorite memories from his years at Sandy Hook. "If you were to knock the school down, we'd be preventing future children from experiencing the same memories ... I don't think one psychopath, who I refuse to name, should be able to ruin this for us."
On the other end of the spectrum, Sandy Hook parent Stephanie Carson said she couldn't imagine anyone ever returning to the building.
"I cannot ask my son or any of the people who were there that day to walk back into that building, and see the past. They can never go back," she said. "The reality is, we have to be so careful even walking in the halls because the children are so scared of any unusual sound. My wish would be to knock it down and have some sort of a memorial, and have the Sandy Hook children be together in another school."
Regardless of side, nearly all parents emphasized the need to keep students together in the face of some parents' concerns about redistricting, which could hypothetically lead to Sandy Hook students being separated in the future.
"I don't have a strong opinion on whether she should go back to school or not," said Sandy Hook parent Felicia Delgiudice. "But what I do have a strong opinion on is, I just want all those kids in Sandy Hook to be together — not to be redistricted in any means."
Other parents echoed those sentiments, asking officials to ensure their children wouldn't be separated from their friends.
"From teachers to lunch ladies, Sandy Hook is a family," said Sandy Hook resident Kathy Holick.
Llodra tried to assuage the fears of redistricting, saying it was "not something I would support."
"It would not be my opinion to advance redistricting," she said, but added she could only offer her personal opinion as an individual, not as a representative of the government. "I can tell you as a former educator, I am absolutely passionate about neighborhood schools, and I think the model we have here comes the closest to replicating that."
Legislative Council Chairman Jeff Capeci said he liked what he heard Sunday, but knew it was just the beginning.
"You heard a wide variety of ideas. I think it was great," Capeci said. "But you have a lot of raw feelings at this point. It's going to be difficult to do something everybody will agree upon immediately, but it's the start of a conversation. I think Newtown is strong, and I think Sandy Hook deserves a school in the future. Exactly where that's going to be, how we move forward to achieve that, is what these conversations will absolutely lead to."
In any case, the decision won't be hasty. A final call is not expected for months, according to officials.
The next public forum is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 18, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.