After mass shootings, officials confront what to do with venues transformed by bloodshed

Question cuts at the heart of how communities try to recover from such attacks
Melissa Goldsmith weeps outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 18, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.
Melissa Goldsmith weeps outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 18, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

Ever since a gunman walked into a high school in Parkland, Florida, last week and opened fire, the school has been closed to the public. For five excruciating minutes, police say, the gunman fired round after round inside Building 12 on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s campus, fatally shooting 17 students and faculty.

A hail of gunfire transformed Stoneman Douglas from a well-regarded suburban high school into a crime scene. This week, Broward County school officials said they plan to gradually reopen the campus in the coming days, first by allowing staff members to return and then letting students come back. The one exception to that is Building 12, which will remain shuttered and, most likely, will never reopen.

In the wake of the massacre, officials in South Florida have faced the same question encountered from Oregon to Connecticut and from Texas to Washington: What do you do with the site of a mass shooting?

For many survivors and other people affected by these rampages, this question cuts at the heart of how communities try to recover from such attacks. These massacres have taken place at schools, offices, churches and movie theaters, and in some cases the attacks leave places central to their communities forever changed by the bloodshed within.

There is no one answer, and the decisions can vary depending on whether the site is a high-rise hotel suite in Las Vegas or a building on a rural college campus. Some places have chosen to tear down the entire structure involved and rebuild, attempting a physical exorcism of the lingering psychic trauma. In other cases, unable to completely demolish and rebuild, authorities altered them before eventually reopening.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told mediaoutlets he agrees that Building 12 should be torn down and replaced. State legislators said they would provide resources to help the district replace the building with a new space for classrooms and a memorial. A spokeswoman for the school district said no official decision has been made yet about whether to demolish the building, though she said when the Douglas campus reopens – first to staff members on Friday and then to students next week – Building 12 will stay closed as part of the police investigation.

In 2009, Virginia Tech reopened Norris Hall, where most of the bloodshed occurred during a 2007 mass shooting that left 32 people dead, and redesigned the hallway that was the site of much of that violence. The Columbine High School library, where most of the 13 people were killed in that 1999 rampage, was removed and then another was opened to take its place.

In Connecticut, after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, that school was demolished and a new one was opened. Snyder Hall at Umpqua Community College in rural Oregon, where a gunman killed nine people in 2015, was torn down after that attack. The replacement building was expected to be finished in March, according to the school.

For other places scarred by mass shootings, the decisions have been as varied as the locations. Church leaders said last year that they hoped to tear down the Sutherland Springs, Tex., church where a gunman killed 26 people. The church leaders discussed plans to reopen the church there or potentially create a memorial on that same location. One week after the shooting, they opened the building to the public as a memorial to the victims.

After a gunman fired on a country music festival from his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, killing 58 people, the hotel’s owner said it “had no intention of renting the room in which he stayed.” The company also said earlier this month it would renumber its floors so people would no longer visit a level labeled the 32nd floor.

The owner of Pulse nightclub in Orlando said she plans to open a memorial there and reopen the club elsewhere after a gunman killed 49 people there in 2016. In Washington, the building at the Navy Yard where a gunman killed 12 people in 2013 was renamed and renovated before reopening in 2015 with a remembrance area dedicated to the victims. Another Colorado location struggling with this same question – a Aurora movie theater closed after a gunman killed 12 people in 2012, then later reopened several months after renovations.

Some places reopened their doors with remarkable speed as they sought to let the communities heal. In Charleston, S.C., a white man who said he wanted to start a race war killed nine black parishioners in 2015 inside the historic “Mother Emanuel” church. Just four days later, the church opened its doors for Sunday services, with some watching from the basement where the shooting occurred.

Not all of these outcomes have been welcome. The mother of a Virginia Tech survivor said when the school reopened Norris Hall that she wished “they’d burn this building down.” People related to Aurora shooting victims said they were appalled after being invited to the theater for its reopening.

Runcie, the Broward County schools superintendent, said he has been told by parents and students alike that they will not return to Building 12. The structure remained closed nearly a week after the shooting, the extent of the horror inside stunning even veteran law enforcement officials.

“This is a bad crime scene,” said Peter J. Forcelli, special agent in charge of the Miami field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who was inside Douglas for hours after the shooting.

“I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies,” said Forcelli, a former New York City homicide detective. “Seeing kids, defenseless kids, piled up, it weighs on you.”

Caesar Figueroa, 43, had two children at Douglas who lost friends and a teacher. Figueroa said briefly returning to the Douglas campus after the shooting to help someone pick up a car gave him chills.

“My kids don’t want to go back there,” said Figueroa. “There are too many bad memories. They don’t want to see the building, they don’t want to go that building.”

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The Washington Post’s Renae Merle in Parkland contributed to this report.

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