NEWTOWN, CT -- Sandy Hook resident Todd Keeping is an officer in the Monroe Police Department. When Chalk Hill School welcomed displaced Sandy Hook students, he volunteered to help. What else could he do?
"I had to do that," he said, leaning down into the microphone to address fellow Newtown residents at the second community forum to discuss the fate of the school building Friday night at Newtown High School. "That is Sandy Hook School over there. Every day, when I drive in, the sign says Sandy Hook School. When they answer the phone, they say, 'Sandy Hook School.' You people and your children make it Sandy Hook School ... And I am so honored to be there."
On December 16 -- just two days after the shooting -- he returned to the site of what was once, he says, Sandy Hook Elementary School. He stood in front of the building where 20 children and six adults lost their lives, and realized he could never ask anyone to go back.
"That building ... It's not a school anymore," he said.
"I know your kids want to go back," he told parents in the audience. "But they want to go back to Sandy Hook School. They don't want to go back to that building ... You want to keep these teachers? Then you cannot ask any one of them to ever, ever go back there."
"We've Never Been Down This Road Before"
In both Friday night's community forum and the first session on Sunday, opinions have been divided: should parents and students ever return to the elementary school on Riverside Road?
In Sunday's session, some residents said students should be allowed back. Tonight, the opposing view seemed more prevalent among the 19 speakers onstage at the High School. In the last half-hour of the session, Llodra took questions directly from residents. Some wanted to know if the school's fate would be put to the community, as one resident put it, "as some sort of poll -- is it going to stay or go?" Another questioner suggested a weighted vote that would give more priority toward Sandy Hook staff and parents.
"I think we're going to hear everyone's perspective, put it all together and let the government process work," said Llodra. "That's the role of the government people to decide, okay, how do we make this final decision? It might be that a consensus emerges ... We've never been down this road before."
But she told residents she suspected there might not be a perfect solution.
"It's not that I'm leaning against [a poll], but it's not appropriate for me to decide how the government is going to answer the question," Llodra told Patch. "So I think when the elected representatives get together, that's how they want to make the decision -- that's what they want to discuss."
Llodra said representatives will go over records of these community conversations and private conversations with Sandy Hook Elementary family and staff.
"They'll get together and say, 'Okay, what do we know, what are the options, and then how are we going to make the decision?'"
Limitations and Reassurances
In this second forum, many residents' questions evolved as Llodra and elected officials allowed new information. Parents who had planned speeches against redistricting -- the only major consensus reached at Sunday's meeting -- scrapped them as both Llodra and Board of Education chair Debbie Leidlein reaffirmed their commitment to "keep the Sandy Hook families together."
However, Llodra told residents, the only suitable property available for a school in the Sandy Hook neighborhood is the elementary school ground itself. And while school population is declining, it hasn't done so enough to relocate students into Reed Intermediate School, another idea. (She did tell residents that Fairfield Hills would be "another possibility.") Though some parents say their children don't like it, Llodra said Chalk Hill is currently the only space in the area big enough to house all Sandy Hook students.
Meanwhile, federal and state lawmakers are telling residents to count on their leverage. U.S. Representative Elizabeth Esty, joining the forum, told residents she'd spoken with Vice President Joe Biden, who had pledged his support.
"I don't know how we're gonna do it, but we'll do it," said Esty. "You decide what you need. Our job is ... to make it happen as quickly as possible."
Many parents agreed the town should take advantage of state and federal promises.
"The state is offering all their support," said Sandy Hook resident Elizabeth East. "Let's aim for the moon."
East's daughter Isabel will be starting school this fall, and she hopes to see a resolution by then. She acknowledged it may be a "slightly unreasonable request."
"The kids need the school home in Sandy Hook, and we need to have a plan finalized very soon," said East. "Our kids have questions ... We parents need answers."
While Mary Ann Jacob -- a legislative council member and Sandy Hook staff member who was in the school on December 14 -- chose not to offer an opinion on the fate of the school, she brought encouragement in her speech.
"I don't know where we'll end up," she said. "When I think about what we should do, I can't help but think, what would Dawn do? ... We need to remember who we are as a community when we make this choice. And stay together. Remember, it's not about us. It's about our kids."
Patch will bring more coverage of this discussion, including full comments from many community members at this meeting, in the coming days. For more coverage of the Sandy Hook School question:
- Read a selection of additional comments and opinions from Sunday's hearing