Should Robb Elementary be rebuilt? Here’s what other school shooting sites did
As funerals begin in Uvalde, Texas, a familiar debate has begun: What should be done with Robb Elementary School, the site of one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history?
Calls to demolish and rebuild the school began soon after last week’s massacre. Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, says he has asked the federal government to provide funds to help rebuild.
“I can’t tell you how many little children that I’ve talked to that don’t want to go back into that building. They’re just traumatized. They’re just destroyed,” Gutierrez said over the weekend in an interview with local TV station KSAT.
“It needs to be torn down. I would never ask, expect, a child to have to walk through those doors ever, ever again. That building needs to gone. Taken away. Gone,” said Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin in another local TV interview.
For others in the Uvalde community, Robb Elementary is a symbol of the rich history of the town’s Mexican American residents. The school dates to an era where Mexican Americans were segregated from white residents, who mostly lived in the city’s east side and sent their children to a school there.
The children of the Mexican American families attended Robb Elementary, on the west side of the city. That community spent decades fighting to improve conditions at the school, said Ronald Garza, a one-time Robb student who now serves as a Uvalde county commissioner, and whose father George was one of Robb Elementary’s first Latino teachers.
Garza told NPR he hopes the Uvalde community can find a way to avoid a complete demolition. “I get emotional thinking about that,” he said.
Similar debates have followed other school shootings around the country. Here’s where that question stands in other places:
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 2018
After a shooter killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, school officials closed the classroom building where the shooting took place. Students returned to class in August of that year, attending lessons in other buildings on the school’s campus and dozens of portable classrooms.
Classes now take place in a new building on campus that was constructed after the shooting and dedicated in October 2020. About $25 million in funding for its construction was provided by the Florida state legislature.
The new building is outfitted with safety features and spaces designed for reflection, WLRN reported. Its opening represented “one more step” in the Parkland community’s healing process, said Lori Alhadeff, who was elected to the school board after her daughter Alyssa was killed in the shooting.
The old building remains on campus. It has been considered a crime scene and cannot be modified or torn down until after the shooter’s trial ends. (Though he pleaded guilty in 2021, his sentencing has been repeatedly delayed. It is currently scheduled for June.)
Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012
The new Sandy Hook Elementary opened in Newtown, Conn., in 2016, nearly four years after a shooter killed 20 students and six staff members in what remains the country’s deadliest shooting at an elementary, middle or high school.
In the months following that shooting, residents of Newtown called for a new school building to replace the old Sandy Hook. The old school was razed in 2013 after the town’s residents voted overwhelmingly to do so.
“It’s where we bring up our kids. It’s where our own family story plays out,” John Woodall, a local psychiatrist, told NPR in 2013. “So, to have this building be the site of this horror cuts right to the core of people’s identities.”
“They don’t want to go back, and vehemently so. For some, it was just too overwhelming to go into that space again without becoming unhinged,” Woodall said. “You can’t ask people to bear something that is, for them, unbearable.”
The new building opened in August 2016. The new school, with its colorful blinds, massive windows and warm wood tones, was designed with safety features like bullet-resistant walls and windows.
“Right from the beginning, they said they wanted it to be welcoming,” said architect Barry Svigals when asked in a 2014 NPR interview how his firm approached designing the new school. “A nurturing environment. Clearly, safety was a part of it — how could it not? And yet it was part of a learning environment that would be delightful for the children, a place where they look forward to coming and every day engaged in a joyful process of learning.”
Virginia Tech University, 2007
When a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007, most of the shooting took place inside a three-story academic building called Norris Hall.
Afterward, some in the university community called for the building to be torn down, but others were determined to reclaim its legacy.
Rather than be demolished, the wing of Norris Hall where the shooting took place was completely renovated and reopened in 2009.
Traditional classrooms were removed and replaced with study space and laboratories. The building also now houses the university’s Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, a research group that studies violence and criminal justice issues.
“If Norris Hall was a boarded building, it would stick out like a sore thumb on campus for the tragedy,” engineering professor Ishwar Puri told NPR in 2009. “Instead, you walked in the hallways, you heard students mingling, you heard professors discussing research, and I think that it’s a wonderful way to honor the fallen.”
Columbine High School, 1999
When a pair of students killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999, there was no precedent of renovation or rebuilding to follow.
The school building remains to this day. The library where most of the shooting occurred was renovated in the years after the shooting.
In 2019, the idea of demolishing the building was raised by school district officials after a spate of people visiting the school “as a macabre source of inspiration and motivation,” prompting fears of copycat violence.
“The morbid fascination with Columbine has been increasing over the years,” wrote superintendent Jason Glass in an 2019 open letter he called “A New Columbine?” “We believe it is time for our community to consider this option.”
“The vast majority of people who come to visit Columbine are there because they have a curiosity with the site, or they view it as sort of a tourist attraction,” Glass said in a 2019 interview with NPR.
“And then we have a very small number that are actually there to do harm. So those are disturbed individuals that we are very concerned about,” he said.
But some survivors of the shooting opposed the idea, saying their healing process involves revisiting the site.
“I was heartbroken over the thought of losing it,” Columbine survivor Will Beck told NPR in 2019. “We can’t let the shooters rule our lives.”
“It’s not right,” Josh Lapp, another survivor, told NPR. “This community has had to deal with enough of a burden, to ask them to pay for this new construction isn’t fair, just because of what the shooters did.”
School district officials dropped the proposal later that year.