Newtown school teacher shares survival story

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With the start of a new school year, Tracy Vitale, superintendent of the Seneca Valley School District, wanted to send a message to her faculty and staff.

"Educators save lives, both literally and figuratively," she said this morning at a back-to-school assembly for district employees.

To make the point, she invited a teacher who had literally saved lives -- 15 of them.

Kaitlin Roig, now 29, went to her job as a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on the morning of Dec. 14, the same day that a gunman fatally shot 20 first-graders and six adult staff members.

Today, Ms. Roig stood in an auditorium in front of a few hundred Seneca Valley employees, to share the story of how she survived and to talk about what good she has tried to create out of that evil day.

Ms. Roig, who was newly engaged to be married and in the midst of her sixth year teaching at Sandy Hook, was in her classroom on the morning of Dec. 14 when she heard the sounds of gun shots and shattering glass.

Thinking quickly, she hurried her 16 students, quietly, into a small bathroom in the rear of the classroom -- a room 3 feet by 4 feet with a toilet in the middle. They barely fit, but she lifted one student on top of the toilet paper dispenser and the rest crowded into the room before she moved a storage unit in front of the door and locked it.

"This is either going to save us or trap us," she thought, as she urged her students to be quiet. With "shots ringing out, as if we were in a war on a battlefield," she didn't think they would survive, and she told her students she loved them, in case that was the last thing they heard.

It seemed like hours or days, she said, but after about 45 minutes, a knock came on the door. It was a SWAT team, but Ms. Roig didn't let her students leave until the police slid a badge under the door.

Ms. Roig described the challenge of the months since that day. She had trouble being alone, going out in public, and sleeping in the dark. She received counseling, and she returned to the classroom with her students, although at a new building, last January.

Gifts and messages of condolence streamed into Newtown from around the world, and toward the end of her counseling, Ms. Roig decided to create something good out of something evil. She encouraged her students, who had experienced the generosity and kindness of others, to pay that kindness forward to another classroom by forwarding some of the toys and coloring books they had received to another school.

The idea has grown into a nonprofit founded by Ms. Roig, called Classes 4 Classes. Ms. Roig, who was married Friday, is taking a leave of absence from Sandy Hook this year to grow her organization and to visit schools, talking to other educators about what she described as the "gift" of being a teacher and about creating something positive.

"We cannot control what happens to us in life, only in how we choose to react to it," she said.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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