Survivor of Sandy Hook shootings praises the bravery of educators


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Kaitlin Roig, in her six years as a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, had never entered the tiny bathroom attached to her first-grade classroom in Connecticut.

But on the morning of Dec. 14 of last year, when she heard "shots ringing out, as if we were in a war on a battlefield," it seemed the only sanctuary.

Quickly and quietly, she ushered her 15 students into the 3-foot by 4-foot room. At least three students stood on the toilet seat. She lifted one girl onto the toilet paper dispenser. Ms. Roig locked the door, and they huddled inside the bathroom, the 16 of them.

"This is either going to save us, or trap us," she was thinking.

It saved them.

On Thursday, Ms. Roig visited Seneca Valley School District to share the harrowing story of how she and her students survived when a gunman entered her Newtown, Conn., school, killing 20 first-graders and six adult staff members.

Seneca Valley superintendent Tracy Vitale invited Ms. Roig to speak as a surprise for district employees. Over the past year, Ms. Vitale said, she saw a common theme emerge from tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shooting and the tornado that struck Moore, Okla.: "stories of courage and strength demonstrated by the educators."

She wanted her employees to hear one of those stories firsthand and to receive from her a message.

"Educators save lives, both literally and figuratively," Ms. Vitale said Thursday morning.

Few educators, of course, endure what Ms. Roig experienced last year.

Now 29, Ms. Roig was newly engaged to be married and starting the day in her classroom, which was the closest to the school's entrance, when she heard the sound of gun shots and shattering glass.

She realized it quickly: "If we were going to live, we had to hide, and fast."

But once they hid, and listening to the "sheer terror" happening beyond their four walls, she believed she would die in that bathroom.

Still, she urged her students to stay calm, to smile or pray or think happy thoughts.

"I said to them, 'I need you all to know that I love you very much, and that it is going to be OK,' " she said.

Forty-five minutes passed, although Ms. Roig said it seemed like hours or days, but then 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 and found the keys to open the door.

The impact of the Newtown shooting has rippled across the country, and Seneca Valley School District, like many others, has responded by enhancing its security measures. This year, armed officers from local police departments will conduct random patrols of the district's buildings, Ms. Vitale said.

As someone who experienced the shooting, Ms. Roig described the challenge of the days and months since that day. She has had trouble being alone, going out in public and sleeping in the dark. But she underwent counseling, and in January she returned to the classroom with her students, although at a new building.

Once she was back at school, 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 last Friday, is taking a leave of absence from Sandy Hook this year to grow her organization and to visit schools such as Seneca Valley, talking to other educators about what she described as the "gift" of being a teacher. Also, about creating something positive from something evil.

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

education - neigh_north

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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