Skip to main content

FILE -- A makeshift memorial at the entrance of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 first graders were killed, in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 15, 2012.MARCUS YAM/The New York Times News Service

In a sense, Dan Krauss carries the weight of an entire town on his shoulders. It’s a small town, to be sure, but its burden of grief and sadness is extraordinarily heavy and thorny, and sometimes unwieldy.

As chairman of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Committee in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Krauss is a central figure in the recovery of the picture-postcard community of 29,000 people 100 kilometres northeast of New York City from that dark December day nine years ago when a gunman entered a local elementary school and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle.

Twenty-six people were killed in the rampage, including 20 children aged 5 to 10 and six staff members. Mr. Krauss’s second-grade daughter escaped with a group of classmates. The 20-year-old gunman, a former student at the school who suffered from mental illness, then shot himself.

The Sandy Hook tragedy remains the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in U.S. history and a reminder that gun violence in American schools – like the shooting at a Michigan high school two weeks ago - remains a social and political flashpoint.

“I always say we’re moving forward rather than moving on,” Mr. Krauss said of Newtown’s healing and the goal of the memorial he is charged with creating. “You’re not ignoring it; you’re still living with it.”

It’s been a bumpy road. In August, after years of discussion and debate among town residents, construction began on a five-acre plot of donated land not far from the old school, which has since been demolished and replaced with a new school building. The memorial is scheduled to open on Dec. 14, 2022, the 10th anniversary of the shootings.

The groundbreaking was a welcome development after what Mr. Krauss described as a “long, long process” to create a memorial everyone could get behind.

“If you drive through Newtown, it looks like a pretty normal New England town,” said Mr. Krauss, who has lived there since 2003. “But under the surface, everyone is in a different place when it comes to dealing with this. Everyone is unique when it comes to moving forward.”

“What we learned through this is not to lump people together,” he said. “To think that all 26 families think and act alike is a mistake. They don’t. They’re individual people who have individual thoughts and move at individual paces and have different views.”

Mr. Krauss pointed to varying views on gun control among victims’ families – from pro-gun sportsmen to those who seek stronger regulations.

The road to a memorial began with a debate about whether there should be one at all. That prompted a series of surveys sent to local residents, victims and non-victims alike.

Then there were questions about how much it would cost – and who would pay. Many residents believed funding should come from the US$12.5-million in donations that poured into the town following the shootings. But much of that was earmarked for the victims’ families, and for mental health services for all involved in the tragedy.

In a town referendum in April, 2021, residents approved spending US$3.7-million on a memorial by a vote of 963 to 748. The Connecticut State Bond Commission kicked in US$2.5-million.

There was controversy about the site. Several locations were rejected, including one so close to a hunting club that shots from it could clearly be heard. And there were wrinkles in finding a design firm to create the memorial.

“Some people called it a contest, but others said it shouldn’t be a contest on our children’s graves, so we called it a design selection process,” Mr. Krauss said. “We have learned to be very careful with our choice of words through this process.

The current plan for the memorial is moving in its simplicity. The entrance will be marked by a granite slab bearing a quote from then-president Barack Obama’s heart-wrenching statement of grief and support following the shooting.

From the entrance, pathways will take visitors across fields and down a treed slope to a lower area with a central plaza. In its centre will be a “sacred sycamore” tree, so called, Mr. Krauss said, because it symbolizes life and hope. The names of the victims will be engraved in a stone apron.

“We hope to create a place for anybody to come and reflect, including someone who wasn’t impacted, and find some healing in the world,” Mr. Krauss said. “Everyone can come to find peace and solitude.”

As for Mr. Krauss, his own healing continues. He says his daughter, now 16, is doing well in high school, though she asks that her name not be used publicly and she does not like crowds. He is recovering from a heart transplant in 2017, and every day mourns the death of his son, stillborn a year before the shootings.

For inspiration, Mr. Krauss recites a favourite saying of Sandy Hook’s principal, Dawn Hochsprung, who was shot and killed while trying to shepherd students to safety: “Be nice to each other. It’s really all that matters.”

“It’s inspiring to a lot of people, even beyond what happened here,” Mr. Krauss said of the quote, which appears on Newtown’s school buses. “It really is all that matters.”