Photo provided by Steven Nolt
New Hope Amish School was completed six months after the shooting occurred.

Fourth in a 6 Part Series
West Nickel Mines Amish School: unique story of forgiveness and healing

West Nickel Mines Amish School: unique story of forgiveness and healing

When a shooting in a one-room Amish school house in Pennsylvania on Oct. 6, 2006 killed five girls and injured five more, the town of West Nickel Mines reacted to the tragedy with a forgiveness, humility and unity rarely seen, especially in the aftermath of a school shooting. The rebuilt school, called New Hope, is a symbol of the values shared by the Amish and their broader Anabaptist community.

One week after the shooting, while members of the community were delivering food to the shooter’s family,  several pupils and their families returned to the school building to retrieve any personal items left behind during the tragedy. “Emergency workers had cleaned up the scene as much as possible, but there were bullet holes and broken windows,” said Steven Nolt, professor of Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College, in an email interview.

“At 10:45 a.m., which was when the shooting had occurred, several boys rang the school bell to mark the moment before they had left the school. The building was demolished soon thereafter.”

– Steven Nolt

“Soon” was just six days later. The school building was demolished in the early morning of Oct. 12, 2006 by a non-Amish contractor with a backhoe in less than thirty minutes.  “The demolition occurred in the darkness just before dawn to prevent media from capturing pictures of it,” said Donald Kraybill, coauthor of a book of the West Nickel Mines Shooting, in an email interview. By 8 a.m. the last of the remains from the school had been removed and the site of the building leveled.

The site was converted back to pasture ground (the building had been constructed in 1976 on the edge of a cow pasture). Within two weeks after the incident, the school then resumed classes in a shop provided by one of the local Amish families. While the students met in the shop building, their parents began planning a fresh site and building for their New Hope School.

There was concern that the new school would attract a lot of media attention, which the Nickel Mines community did not want, Nolt explained. These concerns were fueled by the aftermath of the shooting, when hundreds of reporters and media crews descended on the town of West Nickel Mines

The community also wanted the new building to reduce the recurrence of traumatic memories for survivors of the shooting. None of the families wanted to send their children back to a building where they had experienced extreme violence and trauma, so the decision to demolish the school and reconstruct elsewhere was obvious, according to Kraybill.

With these concerns and goals, the parents on the school board took the initiative to begin plans for the construction of the new school.

Under normal circumstances, management decisions for Amish schools are made by their school board, composed of three to five fathers of the students. These fathers rotate through the school board as terms are completed and new members are elected.

The circumstances are, indeed, unusual: a school board of traumatized victims’ fathers who must now plan and build a new school for the children who escaped. As Nolt explained, each school board member at West Nickel Mines had at least one child impacted by the shooting.

But, the responsibility was theirs. “In a legal sense the school board ‘owns’ the school as trustees. Amish schools are not owned by the Amish church,” Nolt said. “Amish schools are built and maintained by the families in a particular neighborhood for their children, with the day-to-day upkeep left in the hands of the school board.”

So, it was the parents on the school board who took the initiative. “By virtue of their appointment by the community, members of the school board have wide-ranging authority to make decisions in the best interest of the school,” Kraybill said. “However, due to the unusual circumstances I suspect the school board consulted the bishops and pastors in the three congregational districts whose children attended the school.”

One of the more serious responsibilities in dealing with buildings that have had a school shooting is obtaining project funding. For the Amish, this reconstruction funding was orchestrated out of public sight as the Amish prefer. “In the days and weeks after the shooting a number of people contacted me wanting to donate for the construction of a new school,” said Herman Bontrager in an email interview. Bontrager is a leader in the Mennonite church, which is another branch of Anabaptism similar to the Amish. Bontrager served as a liaison between media and the West Nickel Mines community in the aftermath of the shooting.

“The response from the school committee was that they had enough funds to build the school and did not need any donations. They had donations from the Amish community and would use their donated labor and materials, which is typical for the construction of their new schools.”

-Herman Bontrager

“School funding is totally controlled by the school board with no intervention by government agencies. The only public influence over school construction is zoning and land development approvals,” Bontrager said. “Fortunately, many Amish projects are small, simple, low cost and have minimal land-use impact. There are standard school design plans that have approval by public authorities, so the building process is usually quite routine.”

Specific amounts related to the cost of the demolition of the old building and the construction of the new building could not be obtained. However, a total of $5 million was donated from around the world to cover the medical and rehabilitation costs for the five girls who were injured during the shooting, according to Kraybill.

The construction was then begun later that fall by an Amish contractor. The new building has the same dimensions and layout as the previous building but in a different location relatively close to the original school, partially hidden behind a nearby hill to provide more privacy and security.

“All Amish schools in Lancaster are built to the same dimensions – they have a standard building permit that is used and all schools are built with the same layout,” Nolt said. “However, the exterior of the new school was different from the original because the style had changed between 1976 and 2006/7.”

That pattern likely helped the construction of New Hope school to be completed just six months after the shooting had occurred Classes began in the new building April of 2007.

Today, along the edge of the pasture where the West Nickel Mines school once stood, stand a row of trees planted by the families of the five victims. Unmarked, these trees are recognized as a memorial only by those who know the history of the site. “It is a silent, peaceful, humble memorial that reflects the desires of the victims’ families,” Kraybill said.

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For part 5 in the series click here