Crime Scenes: Razing the Memories

In Lancaster, Pa., the Amish community where five girls, ages 6 to 13, were shot and killed during a school shooting decided to raze the entire building soon after the murders.

"The community demolished West Nickel Mines School within a few weeks of the tragedy," said Herman Bontrager, who acted as the spokesman for the Amish community at the time of the shootings.

The previous site of the school is now a pasture where Bontrager says passersby can see horses and cows grazing; a new and nearly identical one-room schoolhouse – with a newly installed security fence – called the New Hope School was built nearby.

"It was very clear very quickly that the school would have really horrendous memories for people who were present [during the shootings]," said Bontrager. "[The community] felt they needed to get away from it and they saw its [demolition] as a way to protect their children from being confronted with that horrible scene every day."

The Virginia Tech community faced a similar situation when they were forced to decide the fate of Norris Hall, the campus building where shooter Seung-Hui Cho opened fire, killing 32 students and then himself in the nation's deadliest shooting rampage to date.

"The first decision about Norris Hall was made in the first several weeks following the attack when we established that we would never hold general-purpose classes there again," said Mark Owczarski, the director of news and information for Virginia Tech.

A task force eventually decided that the permanently installed laboratory equipment in the building was too valuable to demolish. The area where the shooting occurred took up only 5,000 of the building's 100,000 square feet.

So while many of the engineering classrooms remain untouched, the affected area of Norris Hall will soon resemble little of the lecture hall where so many students perished.

"There was a debate over whether to knock the building down or stand resolved and move forward with the building," said Owczarski, who added that the renovations would be completed in the next six months.

"Do you allow that building and that space to symbolize something horrible and tragic, or do you continue to move forward with the educational mission of what Virginia Tech is all about?"

For Survivors, Transforming Tragedy Sites Helps With Grieving

Feeling compelled to change the site where a tragedy occurred – whether by removing the building completely or changing a particular area beyond recognition – is a common and healthy way of grieving, several psychologists told

"It does seem that when there is a vicious human act, people have that much more need to transform the place and not use it for the same purpose," said Richard Small, a psychologist in Reading, Pa., and director of Spring Psychological Associates.

"It is part of healthy grieving," Small added.

Transforming the tragedy site so that specific details of the décor do not bring back troubling memories is helpful to those trying to grieve a loss, said Kenneth Manges, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Cincinnati who specializes in grief counseling.

"When a person can gain some distance from the tragedy, it's helpful to coping," said Manges.

"It may require destruction of the property or a more intensive rehabilitation like at Columbine, where they went through the re-plastering and reconfiguring and re-coloring of the building," he added.

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