On Wednesday 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — a number that could have been much higher had it not been for teachers and staff, who protected and defended their students. Time and time again we see how teachers play a critical role in school massacres and there’s no question that they experience trauma, just as the students do. To understand what the experience is like for them and what comes after, we spoke to three teachers who survived school shootings in the past.
Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, Sandy Hook Elementary
It was a few weeks before Christmas and that holiday feeling was palpable — little kids get so excited. There was an entire corner of my classroom full of stuff to make gingerbread houses. We were talking about our family holiday traditions and then I heard the gunfire.
There was no time to think about keeping calm in front of the kids. I wasn’t confident the windows would open wide enough to fit our bodies. I wasn’t confident running down the hallway because I had no idea where the gun was. We had a very small bathroom in the classroom, I closed the door and turned off the lights. My keys were on the desk so I couldn’t lock the classroom door, I didn’t want to waste a second. My students were still calm, looking at me wide-eyed, “What’s going on, Miss Roig…?”
I said, “We need to get into our bathroom and we need to do it right now.” I didn’t say, there’s a gun, or there’s someone scary.
I don’t know how the 16 of us fit. Trying to move forward one of the biggest hurdles was coming to accept that I actually had survived because it was so unbelievable. I was told from the police report that it was about three feet wide, four feet long. One of my little girls started to cry and I took her head in my hands and I said, “We’re okay, you’re okay, you’re going home to your mom.” If one of them started to cry, they all would. It was hard for us to breathe. It was 45 minutes until the SWAT team found us.
Fifteen members of the SWAT team with body armor, face masks, machine guns led us out of our school.
That was when I was able to let go. I’d held it together for 45 minutes leading by example, but the second we were out, I was crying. I remember taking two of my students’ hands and running.
During the days and weeks following I was terrified of life. I couldn’t even be in the car alone. If my fiancé wanted to go out my friends had to babysit me.
Teachers care about their students in ways that go far beyond classroom walls. Every class that I’ve ever had, they are my kids. You think about your students who don’t have a coat on, you’re thinking about your students who didn’t bring snacks to school. I did something any teacher would do.
When I hear about mass shootings I feel awful. Las Vegas hit me particularly hard because, I believe that it was the first one that happened since my daughter was born. I thought, how could I ever explain this senseless evil to a child? What words do you even use?
Megan Doney, New River Community College
The shooting was on a Friday and I had just finished up a unit on safe societies. My students had written about things like vaccines and playground equipment and how to balance risk and adventure. We’d talked about guns and violence. We were about 20 minutes into class when we heard a sound. I thought it might have been a car backfiring, I crossed the room, opened the door, listened for a second, and we heard two more shots. I knew it was a school shooting. I remember thinking, Am I supposed to lock us in here?
The classroom was adjacent to a glass emergency-exit door. The shooter had parked his car up on the pavement, up against that door. I remember thinking, why is that car there? I threw the door to our classroom open, turned to my students and said, “Get out!”
They flew from their desks and out the door. I stood outside expecting people to pour out but it was just us. One of my students, I don’t know if he pulled me into his car or told me to get in, but I remember sitting in the passenger seat, and he was trying to punch 911 in his cell phone and he couldn’t because his hands were shaking so badly. I said, “You’ve got to let me out, I’ve got to see what’s going on.” I walked back to the entrance. I heard more gunfire.
There were only two other classes that afternoon: The shooter went into a computer-science class and opened fire. After he was sentenced I read that surveillance footage showed him coming to my classroom minutes after we’d left. I don’t have words for how that makes me feel.
The next day we went back to the school to see if we could get our stuff. The entrance was blocked off with crime tape and plastic sheeting and people were repairing bullet holes. I saw a star-shaped bullet hole into the door where one staff member had been hiding. He shot her through the door. By Wednesday, they had cleaned up everything, patched up the bullet holes, the paint was new, the door was new, it was like nothing had happened, but I knew that it was off. It was like Picasso’s Guernica, it looks like one thing but it’s twisted and wrong.
I don’t cope with news of mass shootings very well. I wanted to be the last one. I have a document in my computer called “post-shooting lesson plans.” Why? Why? Why? Nobody should have to write that.
Yvonne Cech, Sandy Hook Elementary
I was in the the library with three other staff ready to give our lesson when we heard the sounds. They were so out of context at first we couldn’t identify them. When we understood what was going on we went into lockdown mode. I went to lock the doors, and found out that my key didn’t work on the very last one. We had to change our plan and barricade to create as many obstacles as we could. We tried to make it seem like it was a special drill so the kids didn’t get panicked. We used eye contact and hand gestures, we whispered to each other.
I am hesitating to say where we hid, school shootings happen so often I want other teachers in this situation to have whatever advantage they need.
We could hear a lot of commotion. It sounded like there were people on the roof, crashing through windows. The children started to understand this was real, they asked: “What is that noise?” “It sounds like a dog barking…” We said well perhaps a dog got into the building, maybe that’s why there’s a lockdown. One said, “This feels real.” I said, “Well, they wanted to do a good job.” We had bizarre conversations because we were trying to keep it light around the kids, against the soundtrack of gun shots.
Twenty students at Sandy Hook were killed that day. We were the last class to leave the school, and when we got out we were the last hope for the waiting parents.
The next afternoon we watched the news for the report of the list of the dead. That’s how I found out who was killed. Just trying to wrap your head around a list of names of 6- or 7-year-olds you have known and now are dead.
I never went back to the building. Sunday morning we got a phone call that there was a vacant school nearby, which they offered to us. Monday morning we were supposed to report to work. It became clear that wasn’t going to happen, we spent that whole next week attending funerals.
There were a lot of very frightened children and very frightened adults. We made it through the rest of the year with a lot of pain, agony, mourning. As educators you always want to find out why something happened. It was a steep learning curve to understand the complexity of the laws in our country that are so biased against what is good for the people and instead protect organizations like the NRA. To us this is about people making a choice to kill children and we are not doing anything about it … How is that possible in our country?
We survivors all touch base when this happens, sometimes it’s just texting a green heart, sometimes it’s just a sad face but we always check in with each other because it opens the wounds every single time.