The Future Of The Table Mesa King Soopers: What Boulder Can Learn From Past Mass Shooting Sites
The grocery store at the center of a shooting that left 10 people dead in Boulder remains closed. More than a month later, a memorial around the perimeter of the site still attracts mourners who leave behind flowers and heartfelt notes. What lies ahead for that building is very much an open question. But there is a playbook, of sorts, for communities finding a way to move forward with physical infrastructure that has become synonymous with mass tragedy.
A handful of people have a very good idea about what the road ahead might look like for Boulder in the wake of the shooting. It didn’t take long for community leaders from Aurora, Colorado, Parkland, Florida, Newtown, Connecticut and other cities that have gone through similar ordeals to reach out to Boulder officials. They offered condolences and support.
Frank DeAngelis was among them. The retired Columbine High School principal said he has devoted himself to helping these communities cope with loss and the prospect of recovery, describing it as “a club in which no one wants to be a member.”
DeAngelis has a very specialized type of wisdom to share with communities emerging from the shadow of a mass shooting.
“It's not that I'm an expert,” he said, “but when I called and responded saying, 'I know what you're going through,' I really did. I just hope that I can share some of the things that we learned, from Columbine.”
One of the questions that needs to be addressed is what to do with the physical space where the event took place. So far, the Kroger Company, King Soopers' parent company, has not released their plans for the building. But DeAngelis said that if they do decide to reopen, the company will have to answer the important question of how to do so thoughtfully, taking into account the health, safety and comfort of the employees who work there as well as that of the surrounding community.
How to do so is a deceptively complicated question, according to Ken Foote, a University of Connecticut geographer who studies sites of trauma and says that horrific events can fundamentally interfere with our attachment to a particular place.
“Maybe it erases (attachment) altogether or modifies it so that people develop … a sense of foreboding or fear or a sense of haunting,” he said.
Foote has a framework for thinking about what happens to sites like these. Some become sanctified – almost sacred – and they can’t return to normal use.
This idea is familiar to DeAngelis. In 1999, during his tenure as principal of Columbine High School, 12 students and a teacher were killed by two gunmen. Several were in the library, which was directly above the cafeteria. In the aftermath of the shooting, there was consensus in the community.
“We knew we could not go back in the library,” DeAngelis said. “We felt that was really hallowed ground.”
At the same time, community members took a lot of pride in the school. They did not want to start over with a new building. So, they devised a creative solution that honored the victims and satisfied that need to sanctify the space. The floor of the library was removed, opening the cafeteria into a double-height space with an atrium.
At the other end of Foote’s spectrum, however, some communities need to demolish these buildings. “I call it obliteration,” Foote said, “where people find the events so shocking and shameful that they try and scour the landscape.”
That’s what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary school, in Newtown Connecticut. A shooting there left 26 dead, including several young children. Michele Gay lost her daughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, and she later co-founded a crisis prevention and recovery nonprofit called Safe and Sound Schools. Gay said that her community ultimately landed on completely demolishing the school building.
“Those decisions are very heavy decisions to make,” she said, noting that practical considerations, like the age of the school building, contributed to that decision.
But Foote also says that some places simply need to be marked – he calls it a designation, which he describes as “a sign indicating that something important happened here.” That acknowledgment can be enough to bring life back to a particular site.
Based on his research, Foote says designation is the most likely outcome for the Boulder King Soopers. But, he warned that whatever shape that designation takes, it has to be thoughtful.
“You have this this stigma and there's trauma attached to place and it can be very strong,” he said. “It can be so strong that that no amount of changing the physical setting or whatever is necessarily going to release that trauma.” But a process that is sensitive to processes of grief and trauma can help.
Safety and security
John McDonald is director of security for Jeffco Public Schools, which includes Columbine. He was not in that role in 1999, but has been responsible for school safety in the extended aftermath. More than 20 years later, Columbine High School still attracts hundreds – or even thousands – of unwanted visitors a year. These so-called “dark tourists” are fascinated by the school’s tragedy.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of people that want come experience and feel it, touch it,” he said. “They're inspired by the stories of the victims and unfortunately, sometimes inspired by the killers.”
With all of the notoriety a mass shooting can bring, McDonald said that a safety and security plan is one of the most important considerations for reopening. “Safety and security … has to look different than what it was on the day that you had a tragedy,” he said. “You have to pay attention to what's being said on social media. You have to respond to threats much more aggressively.”
But McDonald warns that the tools to ensure physical safety are costly. He said ongoing enhanced security for Columbine High School was significantly higher than any other school in the district. And he said some of that security comes at the cost of emotional safety.
“You’re always managing a welcoming environment with this fortress building mentality,” he said. “People are going to want to feel safe again.”
Reacting to the space
Melissa Reeves is a psychologist, author and national expert on prevention and recovery from mass trauma, who warns that some people respond poorly to spaces that reopen after a mass atrocity.
“Trauma triggers are real,” she said. “If a space is kept the same and someone does have a very negative connotation of that space, when they see it, it reminds them of that day and they could actually have some flashbacks.”
Reeves says it would be a good idea to remodel the supermarket before allowing the public back in. That could help people prone to trauma responses.
“They don't want that reminder of what that day exactly was like,” she said. “Usually communities reconfigure the space somewhat in order for it to not serve as a trauma trigger for certain individuals.”
According to Ken Foote’s framework, marking the site with some sort of memorial can be important for recovery. But at the same time, experts warn that victim memorials can also unearth trauma.
Frank DeAngelis recalled having very mixed feelings about the makeshift memorials – the flowers and teddy bears – that popped up outside of Columbine High School in the weeks following the shooting there. “The generosity was outstanding,” he said, “but it would trigger emotion because it would bring back the sadness of the event.”
At Columbine, that issue was addressed by locating a permanent memorial to the victims at a park across from the school. DeAngelis thinks King Soopers should take a similar approach.
“As employees, when you walk in every day, if you see flowers and you see posters and things of that nature, what does that do for the people that have to report to work every day?” he said. “It's a constant reminder of that day.”
A custom fit
Every community has different strengths and weaknesses and different values, all of which can affect what shape recovery takes. According to Michele Gay, the Sandy Hook Elementary School mother and safety and recovery expert, there is no one right way to move forward.
“The best practices are going to come from the community itself because no two communities are the same," she said, “and no two journeys forward are the same.”
The first step towards recovery is tending to a community’s mental health. “In the wake of a tragedy the focus really needs to be on supporting those who are hurting,” Gay said. “It’s just mission critical. You can't do anything until you can find your feet and breath.” She said it’s key to take care of immediate and basic needs.
Then the community can think about the future – and the future is always a custom fit. The process of finding that fit involves conversations and community input. Gay hopes to see King Soopers engage with the community – speak to the survivors, the families of those who didn’t survive, the store employees and the people who used to shop there every day.
Psychologist Melissa Reeves says this process of dialogue and input-gathering can be more important than the eventual outcome for a site. “What's important is that whatever decision is made about what to do with that space, that business took time to dialog with those community members that use it the most and seek input to make an informed decision,” she said.
Rushing the process of community dialogue can be counterproductive. Foote says that it can take years – or sometimes even centuries – for a community to fully contextualize a mass casualty event like this.
“Those processes are never fixed and they never stop that sites can change in meeting through time,” he said.
It was years before the permanent memorial for the Columbine victims was built. In Newtown Connecticut, voters approved a permanent memorial to the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims just last week. And this week, in Pittsburgh, the Tree of Life Synagogue – the site of a 2018 shooting where 11 people were killed – revealed preliminary plans for that building.
“It is important to not rush these decisions, to try to to put up a memorial immediately,” Gay said. “Sometimes the public wonders how come you don't have your memorial constructed already? And the honest answer is that it just takes time to do it right.”
A spokeswoman for King Soopers told KUNC that the company is focused on healing and has no timeline for making a decision about what to do with the store. City leaders have no say in the matter, because it’s private property. But they say they will support King Soopers as they make plans for the future.