Following last month’s school shooting in Florida, Sandy Hook teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, 35, tells Stylist how it feels to be the responsible adult in such a dangerous situation.
The news from America is all about school shootings. Again. But this time the tone is different. The student survivors of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have mounted an impressive anti-gun campaign, asking questions politicians haven’t dared to and shifting the national debate. It’s impossible to understand what they’ve been through, only another shooting survivor could understand. Teachers have also been a crucial part of the debate, after President Trump suggested armed staff could prevent shootings. More reaction to the crisis is inevitable. Just before Stylist went to press, on 28 February, a teacher in Dalton, Georgia, barricaded himself in a classroom and fired a handgun. We spoke to Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a former teacher and survivor of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, about what it’s really like to be caught up in such a horrific event and her hopes for the future.
“On 14 December 2012, I was in my seventh year of teaching first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was a Friday, about two weeks before Christmas. My class was preparing for the holidays and the excitement of my students – six- and seven-year-olds – was palpable. I had just turned 29 and was engaged to be married. I cannot think of another time in my life that I was on such a high.
That morning, I left my house at around 6.45am. I happened to look out of my living room window and the sun was rising over Long Island Sound. It was so beautiful, I picked up my phone, took a picture and posted it on Facebook, then raced out of the door to my car to drive to school, about one hour away. In my classroom, my students arrived and we did as we do every morning – sit in a circle, greet each other and share things about our lives; a time we call Morning Meeting. It was about 9.30am and we were in the midst of sharing our different holiday traditions and talking about what cookies we were going to bake when, suddenly, very loud, rapid-fire shooting began. I heard the sounds over and over and over again.
There was not one single moment of hesitation. My dad has guns so I’d heard gunshots before, and I knew exactly what the sound was. For myself and my students, time was of the essence. It’s important to know that we were the first classroom in the school. We were 10 to 15 feet away from where the gunman shot through the entrance door.
I knew he had to be right next to us, and if we ran out of the classroom, the gunman was going to be there. Like all schools in the US, we had practised a lockdown drill, which was to crouch down and cover our heads. If we had done that, we would have been sitting ducks. The only option was to hide. We had a bathroom in the back left-hand corner of the class – it was incredibly small, about three by four feet across and built for a seven-year-old child.
Before that morning, I had never been inside it because it was way too small for an adult to use. But that was the only option, and I knew all 15 of my students had to fit inside. I turned to the children and said, “We need to get into our bathroom because there is a scary man and we’re waiting for someone good to come and get us.” They quickly came to understand, so we rushed into the bathroom as shots were ringing out. Initially, they had a lot of questions – How? What? Why? – but kids at that age follow by example and they know that I’m their teacher and they can trust me, so they followed.
I can’t articulate how loud and scary those sounds were, of that gun going off over and over again, so close to us. We eventually all got into the bathroom, piled in, but the door closed from the inside so we were blocking it from closing with our bodies. I started picking the kids up so that we were able to close and lock the door. My students and I were in a place barely big enough for me. They were like sardines. It was so hot. It was so hard to take a deep breath. It was beyond uncomfortable. The kids understood that silence meant we might be safe. When they did whisper, it was things like, “I really want my mom”, “I need to hug her” or “I don’t want to die”.
One little girl started to cry at one point and I took her face in my hands and said, “Show me your smile, smile for me”, because I knew if she started to cry, which was a real possibility, everyone would start. I somehow had to convince this one girl that everything was going to be OK. I said, “It’s gonna be alright, you’re gonna be OK. You’re gonna see your mom. Smile for me, smile, smile, smile”. She did, and she stopped crying.
A call to arms
I never used the word “gunman” or “gun” that day or afterwards with them. But they knew the sounds they were hearing – they knew that sound was scary and it was all around us.
Since the Columbine High School massacre 19 years ago, lockdown drills in America have become common. At Sandy Hook, we took them very seriously yet they would not have saved us that day.
But there was a piece of dark blue construction paper over the window of my classroom door from a drill earlier in the year. There was speculation that the gunman may have thought the classroom was empty because of that piece of paper. We don’t know if he entered our room or not. I am sure he did – why would he have skipped our classroom? – but I will never know.
Our school was built so that classrooms were separated by walls made of cinder blocks. Students and teachers were losing their lives on the other side of these blocks. My students heard things that no-one, let alone a child, should ever hear or experience – all the while, thinking that they were next. It was absolutely awful and we were in there for 45 minutes until the call came that we were going to be rescued.
There’s been talk of arming teachers in schools and my personal opinion is: absolutely not. I would never want the responsibility of being armed. I’d never want the responsibility of using and knowing how to use a firearm.
Before this happened, I was unaware that a civilian could purchase an assault rifle. To me, you either have a gun for sport or you have a gun for protection – I just don’t understand why you should be able to shoot 95 rounds in one minute. The assault rifle ban should be reinstated. There is absolutely no reason that a civilian should own a semiautomatic weapon.
Afterwards, Sandy Hook was levelled to the ground and we returned to a different school on 2 January in a neighbouring town. In my new classroom, the kids were very fragile, as was I. We’d lived through hell. My kids were terrified of loud noises, which would send some students into panic, curling up into a ball and rocking back and forth. Our classroom didn’t have a bathroom or closet, so every day they’d say, “If that scary man comes here, where are we going to hide?”
After the tragedy, there were so many questions that I couldn’t answer. They all started with ‘why’. Why did this happen? Why our school? Why innocent lives? And I realised that I was never going to be able to answer those ‘whys’.
I needed to shift my energy to questions that could be answered: how do I make sure this day does not come to define me and my students? And how do we take our control back?
Those two questions drove me in every single thing that I did. I went to therapy for about two months and then I had an idea for starting my own non-profit organisation. I told my therapist about it and she agreed: action is healing and I needed to follow that path.
The idea for my online non-profit, Classes 4Classes, came because people kept donating thoughtful gifts to our school. I realised I needed to make that a teachable moment for my kids, instead of gifting them things. My mission is to teach children the power of kindness through their ability to create positive change for others. Once that idea came to me, I put all my energy into it and eventually left my job as a teacher.
When I hear about other tragedies such as last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it’s sickening. My anxiety goes up immediately and I feel right back in it. Having been in that position I know first-hand the weight you feel in those first moments and days after, how heavy and all-encompassing it is. It has a thickness. It feels like taking a breath is an arduous task. You do get through. You do arrive at the other side. You find your way forward.
Staff and students in schools who have lived through something like this will be coping with anxiety, sadness and the overall enormity of what has happened. And not just for themselves, but for their students as well. It makes it that much harder and deeper and real.
Now I have an eight-month-old daughter, it’s amplified. She has such an innocent face – how will I someday explain this senseless evil to her? There is no answer. But bad things happen to all of us, and the moment doesn’t have to define you. My husband and I got married the following August, exactly as planned, in the Hamptons with our toes in the sand.”
How events unfolded following the tragedy in Parkland, Florida
Gunman Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly sets off the fire alarms at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, prompting students to move outside, before producing a semiautomatic rifle and killing 17 people and injuring more.
Student Emma Gonzalez addresses a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, drawing attention to the money received by Donald Trump from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and then led the crowd in a chant of “shame on you”. The speech went viral, propelling the teenage activist to global fame.
The pupils of Marjory Stoneman Douglas continue to be some of the strongest voices in the gun control debate, appearing on CNN to ask tough questions of politicians, police and Dana Loesch, a spokesperson for the NRA.
Students return to school. The building is ringed by armed police and TV crews. Regular classes are shortened and counselling sessions are provided, with the school day ending early at 11.40am.
Pupils and teachers across the US plan to walk out of lessons, calling for stricter gun laws. Some school districts have threatened to punish pupils who participate, while many universities have promised high-school students that involvement in the protest will not affect their chances of gaining a place.
A national protest organised by survivors, the March For Our Lives, will take place in Washington DC. George and Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg are among those funding the march’s organisational costs.
Images: Rex Features / Christopher Lane