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Newtown at 6 Months: Beacon of Hope or Icon of Tragedy?

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Just six months ago, a gunman in Newtown, Conn. entered an elementary school and went on a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, ultimately killing 20 first-graders and six of their adult educators. The tragic, bloody scene left the town broken and bereft. After all, the majority of those killed were innocents, six- and seven-year-olds -- ages when children still cuddle with their parents and show unabashed affection.

American's hearts and sympathies went out to Newtown in hopes that the small New England community would be able to recover from an almost unspeakable tragedy. But the question these many months later remains: Will Newtown be indelibly etched into the American psyche as the site of an almost unspeakable shooting, or will it be remembered as a town with the fortitude and ability to overcome a horror and come together in the face of extreme tragedy?
So far, the signs point to the latter.

In just half a year, the people of Newtown have already shown a propensity to rebuild and recover. Among the first signs of their fortitude was the decision last month on what to do with Sandy Hook Elementary School. After a series of difficult, emotional meetings over which I presided as facilitator, I witnessed an enormous level of compassion and fortitude as the town's residents wrestled with their choices.

After several gut-wrenching weeks, the town's ad-hoc committee of 28 elected officials reached a unanimous decision to raze and rebuild Sandy Hook Elementary in the same spot -- with modifications. It wasn't an easy choice, but one wrought with emotions and moments of almost total apparent breakdown. The residents, facing a set of imperfect choices under the most difficult circumstances, listened to one another with compassion and patience.

While the rest of the country fought anew about gun laws and gun control, going on the attack and displaying a wall of divisiveness, Newtown had settled on a different tack: It was getting things done with minimal fractiousness and an attentive attitude. The people there were accomplishing what the nation aspires to but has yet to manage: coalescing for the sake of the overall good.

There were any number of moments when the people of Newtown could have retreated and simply shut down, deciding the task was just too much for a town so hard hit by tragedy. The people of Newtown had the option of walking away, losing trust and confidence in each other, engaging in finger-pointing or simply yelling to make their voices heard and let the world feel their rage.

Alternatively, they could have used the meetings on the school to grandstand, posture and even take advantage of their newfound platform to run for higher office. But none of that happened, either.

Instead, to this day, everywhere you go in Newtown, there are signs of collective courage and resilience: in diners and shop windows are signs that read: "We are Sandy Hook. We choose love." Another commonly found sign states: "Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world." Visitors can still make donations and purchase green ribbons, Newtown's sign for solidarity.

Instead of trying to sidestep the pain and pretend away a potentially debilitating trauma of Dec. 14, the people of Newtown seem ready to move ahead.

The next steps won't be easy: survivors and those around them will have to grapple with the long-term issues of mental health, family stability, and so much more; beyond that, the community will have to redefine itself, for there is no turning back the hands of time. Ultimately, Newtown will have to decide how it wants to move forward and what kind of community it wants to be.

But so far, the community seems to be on the right track: Six months later, Newtown has positioned itself to be a model of compassion and cooperation, rather than a symbol of tragedy.

Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. He is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of public innovation and community change, with a 25-year track record. He recently facilitated the unanimous decision on the fate of Sandy Hook Elementary, where 26 children and adults were killed in December 2012. Harwood is the author of numerous works, including his most recent: "The Work of Hope: How Individuals & Organizations Can Authentically Do Good." He can be reached at rharwood@theharwoodinstitute.org.