Newtown: A Tough Decision, Made with Courage

Last Friday night, the people of Newtown decided to move forward amid their despair. It was a decision that required unvarnished courage and humility – the real  kind, the kind that comes from one's very core. It is a story that offers the Newtown community much-needed hope – perhaps healing – and gives the rest of us a sense of possibility about what we are capable of doing.

Over the past two months I have had the honor of leading 28 elected Newtown officials through a gut-wrenching process to decide the future of Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was no ordinary process for selecting a school building site, but a discussion that required the community to re-open and explore its wounds; for individuals who lost children and those whose children watched the killings to come forward and share their grief and sorrow; for teachers to recount what happened that dreadful day and the trials of the days since.

The outcome of this process was never a sure thing; indeed, it was risky. Would the task force be able to reach a decision? Would a decision splinter the community? How would people react to having to relive the events of December 14? How would the community's frailty stand up to the added pressure?

On May 3 (the task force’s fourth session), the meeting at which we had said publicly a decision might be made, the floodgates of emotion opened. It was raw and emotional – both in a closed-door meeting with teachers and then in the public session. All this happened against the backdrop of a middle school student having committed suicide the day before. The meeting itself took place with people standing three deep around the room and television cameras recording every move. We were in a fishbowl.

Needless to say, we did not make a decision that night. What's more, the task force decided to put back on the table two options it had previously set aside. The media (and some in the community) said then that the process had broken apart, that the task force had reversed course. But nothing could have been farther from the truth.

I said repeatedly to the media and to task force members during and after the May 3 meeting that what happened was not uncommon; in fact, it was helpful. For the closer a group gets to a tough decision like this, the more the full weight of the decision crystallizes, and the more things can feel like they are breaking apart as people examine and re-examine their feelings, fears, hopes, concerns. This is to be expected. This is human. And without this, a decision often cannot be reached.

On May 10, after a week of allowing things to settle, the task force met again with an urge to bring closure. The members worked through the two added options, only to dispose of them, and then worked through the remaining options, only to reach a unanimous decision to raze the existing Sandy Hook School and build a new school on the existing site. Upon the announcement of the decision, community members gave a prolonged standing ovation.

But why?

Throughout this process I witnessed something emerge and take shape that was remarkable. Here was Newtown – a victim of a massacre, marred by trauma, ground zero for the divisive gun debate, and descended upon by hordes of national media and special interest groups – which chose to move forward amid its despair. The task force could have just as easily decided to step back from making any decision. The community itself could have insisted now was not the time to be thinking about the school. And opposing camps could have dug in and sought to "win" the debate.

But none of that happened.

Moreover, nowhere was it written that these 28 elected officials – thrown together from four different town boards to forge this ad hoc task force – would find a productive way to work together. Nowhere was it said that they would demonstrate compassion for each other.

But they did.

And there is no rulebook that says that such a group – one that had never worked together before – must stick together rather than break into constituent parts. No rules dictated that the group must work overtime in order to do no more harm in a community already deeply injured, or at least trying to minimize such harm moving forward.

There is only human nature.

In Newtown, people chose decisively to take a big step toward healing. Their hurt, their pain, their sorrow, their tears, their trauma—no community can simply "fix" any of this; it only can choose to do its best to move forward.

At the end of last Friday's meeting, when everyone was saying their good-byes, a task force member sought me out. We had already said our good-byes. When he came up to me, I watched him as he gently removed from his shirt a small green, Newtown lapel pin. He then reached out and handed it to me. It was one more sign of the compassion, love and strength of Newtown – and how people watch out for one another and stick together.

We are each capable of so much.