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Sandy Hook's Future: What's To Become Of The School?


Now we'd like to turn to a story that more than five months later, is still painful. In the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, the Newtown, Conn., community had many tough decisions to make. One of them was just what should happen to the elementary school where 26 people were killed.

Rich Harwood is the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's a nonprofit group that facilitates community discussions. He helped facilitate the conversations about what the community should do with the old building. As you might imagine, those were some difficult and emotional conversations, and he joins us now to share some of what he learned.

Welcome - welcome back, I should say. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

RICH HARWOOD: It's great to be with you again, Michel.

MARTIN: So you worked with a 28-member task force, which was then going to, I guess, advise the school board; and then there'll be a referendum on it. So this is just the first step in the process. But what were some of the issues that this group was asked to consider?

HARWOOD: Well, you know, on the surface, it looks like it's a discussion about siting a new school but really, what this was about - this was the first public process where the community had to come to grips with the trauma it had experienced, a horrific set of circumstances. And so this process really was, how does a community decide to step forward and grapple with this issue? How does it decide to talk about something that's so emotionally charged? How does it decide to deal with trauma not just in an individual sense, but really in a community sense?

And so they needed to really grapple with those issues on the one hand and on another hand, they needed to decide what's the role of teachers in making this decision? What about the voices of victims? What about the voices of survivors? How do you weigh those different things and move forward?

MARTIN: So it wasn't really just about the building?

HARWOOD: It's not really about the building at all.

MARTIN: And was that your first job - is to help people understand that it really wasn't just about the building?

HARWOOD: Well, you know, this was part of the difficulty of setting up the process - which was, on the surface, it looked like we were talking about siting a building, but I had to set up a process that enabled people to talk about the emotional aspects about this, the conflicts within themselves and within the community. And I had to do it in such a way that there was enough of a container so it didn't break apart, but there was enough room, actually, for these emotional issues to come to the surface.

MARTIN: Give an example of how you went about doing that. Was it setting a deadline? Was it...

HARWOOD: Yeah. There were three principles I worked off of, which was - one was that I needed to set up a methodical process that would take people through a series of steps that enabled them to talk about these issues, but for it not to become a free-for-all. Second, the process needed to be transparent. As you know, this took place entirely in public and so there needed to be no surprises, either for the elected 28 officials or for the community. And third, there needed to be enough room in this conversation for people to really work through both the technical issues about where to site a school but more fundamentally, the emotional issues that had to take place and importantly - which came up - I needed to give enough room for people to circle back to things they thought they had once decided in the process, but as they were moving through, they wanted to return to and revisit and re-examine.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. How do you ensure that with something like this that is so painful for so many people, that people feel heard, but they still kind of get someplace?

HARWOOD: Yeah. That's part of the steps that you set up so that people know that there's a roadmap for moving forward. But you know, in the fourth meeting - there were five meetings. The fourth meeting, we thought we were going to make a decision, and it was the point at which all the emotional issues came to the floor. It was the point at which a letter was sent out by teachers saying they could never go back to the school, which really shook up the community.

We had a closed-door session with teachers before the fourth meeting, teachers who had witnessed the killings who they, themselves, had been shot; who watched colleagues be riddled with bullets by Adam Lanza, the gunman. And so at that meeting, I knew, because of the emotional content of this decision, I needed to leave room for them to explore those emotions - to feel as though, in a sense, the meeting was coming apart. The media said we had broken apart, at that point, and I had said back to the media, no. Actually, without giving room for people to really talk about the trauma, their own emotions, the emotions of the community, you could never reach a decision.

MARTIN: So there was this fourth meeting which you thought a decision would be made. It wasn't made then. Eventually, though, the group came back and the decision was unanimous.

HARWOOD: That's right. So because we allowed the fourth meeting to open up and then said to folks, well, go back and - I asked them two questions - think about what you're wrestling with here and what you're trying to sort out, and to talk to one another about this in between our two meetings.

And, interestingly enough - and this was predictable for someone like myself, who does this every day - they came back for the fifth meeting; and what had crystallized to them were a number of factors. One, they had to move forward. To simply sit in their despair would not help the community. They needed some closure about the school building. They came to the realization that they couldn't satisfy everyone in the community. Their task was to do their best and help the community move forward.

And yes, so at the end of the meeting on the fifth meeting, I think, to the surprise of many in the community, it was a unanimous decision and, you know, look, this was a risky process. This could have broken apart. These 28 elected officials who had never sat around a table together - from four different governing boards - could have been rivals. It could have been very acrimonious and divisive. There could have been a lot of posturing.

And in fact, what Newtown demonstrated to the rest of the country that, under the most horrific circumstances with imperfect choices, we can actually come together and get things done.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. So briefly, the decision was to raze the old building and build a new building on the same site.

HARWOOD: Right. But with two fundamental changes, which we were able to work out. One, there would be a new entryway to the school so people would not have to drive up the same road that they ran down, fleeing the gunman; and second, the orientation of the school would face a fundamentally different direction now. And so the whole feel, the whole sense of the school would be really different but as people said, still on the same site to demonstrate that we have the wherewithal, the will and the desire to not let the gunman win.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask - and you started to address this question. Is there something that the rest of us can learn from this experience in coming to decisions, apart from such dramatic and difficult and painful circumstances?

HARWOOD: I think what I take away from this is that we have the capacity for being divisive and acrimonious, but we also have the capacity to come together and stick together to keep focusing on the human dimension of these issues. This could have been a highly technical issue. It wasn't. To recognize that we can't satisfy everyone, but we need to do the best that we can and to recognize that it's possible for public officials and the public itself to stick together even when there are disagreements. And those are some of the lessons I take from this.

MARTIN: Rich Harwood is the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's a nonprofit group that facilitates community discussion. He's also the author of a number of books, including "The Work of Hope: How Individuals and Organizations Can Authentically Do Good." He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

HARWOOD: Thanks for having me again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.