NEWTOWN, Conn.—After weeks of emotional, sometimes-contentious debate, a task force charged with deciding the future of Sandy Hook Elementary School recommended tearing down the school and building a new one on the same property where a gunman killed 26 people—including 20 children—in December in one of the worst school massacres in U.S. history.
The 28-person task force of elected officials voted unanimously for the plan, which was submitted to the Newtown Board of Education. It will now have to be approved by both the school board and residents at an upcoming referendum.
Sandy Hook Elementary School has remained closed since the Dec. 14 shootings. In January, the 430 surviving students were relocated to Chalk Hill School, a retrofitted facility in nearby Monroe.
Last week at a tense town meeting, officials struggled to come to an agreement on a plan, narrowing the choices to three: renovating the existing structure; building on a new site; or a new Sandy Hook Elementary School at its current location—the plan they ultimately settled on.
"I will chain my body to it and to protest if they try to reopen it," Erica Lafferty, daughter of slain Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung, told NBC's Hartford affiliate after last week's meeting. "It should be knocked down. There should be some type of long-lasting memorial. I don't want people to walk into the building and say, 'Oh well, that's where Erica's mom got gunned down.' That's not OK."
Brian Engel, whose 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, died in the shootings, told the task force he didn't want Olivia's younger brother to have to walk into the building where the massacre took place: "We do want him to go to Sandy Hook School, but at an alternate location—not where his sister died."
[Slideshow: Scenes from Newtown, Dec. 14-21, 2012]
Other parents disagreed. "It's not the building that was the problem," Steven Uhde, the father of a Sandy Hook second grader, said at the May 3 meeting. "It was someone in the wrong frame of mind."
The task force knew it would not be able to please everyone.
"There's no solution that's going to be 100 percent acceptable to any population," Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra said in April at the panel's first meeting. "There's no perfect solution here. The perfect solution for the town of Newtown would be if this didn't happen to us."
The task force reviewed 40 possible locations for Sandy Hook Elementary, including its current location on Riverside Road.
"The most important thing is that we don't get redistricted," Peter Baressi, a first responder and father of a Sandy Hook first-grader, said in April. "We are part of Newtown."
The panel did have something of a road map. Columbine High School in Colorado, where 12 students and one teacher were killed by gunmen 1999, removed the library where most of the victims died and replaced it with an atrium. Virginia Tech "converted a classroom building where a student gunman killed 32 people in 2007 into a peace studies and violence prevention center," the AP said. At West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, officials built a new school several hundred yards away after a gunman killed five girls there in 2006.
And at California's Oikos University, where seven people were killed in 2012, the classroom where they were slain is now "used only for theology classes," NBC News noted.
Officials estimate the cost of constructing the new school will be between $47 million and $59 million. If approved, the new school could open as early 2016.
"It certainly opens the door to a path toward healing that was not there before," Newtown deputy planning director Rob Sibley told the Hartford Courant. "[But] it doesn't detract from the grief we feel on a daily basis."
"We can make that site love again," Uhde added.