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New schoolhouse opens near site of massacre

Amish children carrying lunch pails arrived at a new one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania on Monday morning, marking a fresh beginning for students who survived a shooting that killed five classmates last fall.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A bell summoned Amish students to a new, more cheerful and more secure one-room schoolhouse Monday, six months to the day after a gunman shot 10 of their classmates, killing five.

The building replaces the West Nickel Mines Amish School, which was torn down 10 days after the Oct. 2 attack by a neighborhood milk-tanker driver who killed himself as police closed in. Blacktop was installed on the driveway instead of gravel, Bart Township zoning officer John Coldiron said, because the children remembered the sound of the gunman's tires spitting rocks.

"They're elated that they have a new school, but nevertheless it's going to bring back forcefully that day six months ago," said retired teacher Dan Baughman, 81, a longtime neighborhood resident.

On Monday morning, children carried multicolored lunch coolers as they walked past state troopers guarding the school's private lane for the start of classes. A few were accompanied by adults.

"This is going to be a red-letter day in their life, because it is a school of their own," Baughman said.

The New Hope Amish School has a steel door that locks from the inside. It has no phone, but its location behind a row of non-Amish homes provides a way to quickly summon help in an emergency, Coldiron said. During the rampage, a teacher had to run to a neighboring farm to call 911.

"For an Amish one-room schoolhouse, this one is spectacular," said Coldiron, who inspected it last week.

The building, within sight of the old school's location, lacks electricity, per Amish custom, but skylights and windows make it bright inside, Coldiron said. It is propane-heated, with bathrooms in an outbuilding. Sod was purchased so the students don't have to wait for grass to grow before they can play in the school yard.

In a touch of modernity, the traditional blackboard was replaced by a whiteboard that Coldiron said adds to the cheery atmosphere. A religious message hangs near the front door.

"I guarantee you, it (cost) a good deal more than they normally spend," Coldiron said.

The school's construction was paid for in part with a portion of more than $4 million in donations to the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, the primary organization collecting donations on behalf of the 10 victims. Donations, some sent directly to the school board, have also helped provide care for the five wounded girls who survived.

Four of the five have returned to school. The fifth, a 6-year-old, needs a feeding tube and is not able to communicate, according to Mike Hart of the Bart Township Fire Department, who is also a committee member.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old father of three who lived about a mile away, tied up the girls and shot them after ordering the boys and adults to leave the school. Investigators found evidence he was haunted by his infant daughter's death in 1997 and by an uncorroborated memory of having molested young female relatives 20 years earlier.

Roberts' widow, Marie, and their three children have moved from their home in the village of Georgetown, about a mile from the shooting, to another community within Lancaster County, Hart said.