New Castle News

November 6, 2013

New Castle Schools: Sandy Hook teacher who protected class during deadly shootings shares story

David Burcham
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Forty-five minutes.

That three-quarters of an hour seemed like an eternity on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, after teacher Kaitlin Roig made a decision that spared her 15 first graders from a deadly encounter with a deranged shooter roaming the halls at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

But the exact same time span passed quickly yesterday morning when Roig spoke during an in-service day for New Castle Area School District personnel.

Roig, who competed in the New York City Marathon on Sunday, brought a life lesson to New Castle, and the devoted elementary teacher was at her best in presenting it.

Her classroom was the high school auditorium and the students were her peers. The emotional story inspired, motivated, uplifted and challenged all who had ears.

Roig, who turned 30 last week, shared what took place on that terrifying day and revealed the positive outlook and new purpose that has come from it.

“Tragedy does not have to define you,” she said. “It’s how you choose to react.”

Roig made a choice to shelter her students in a three-by-four-foot bathroom in the back of her classroom.

Twenty others students and six teachers in Newtown, Conn. found no sanctuary. They were slain.



RELIVING TERROR

Hired at age 22, Roig was in her seventh year at Sandy Hook when her world was forever changed.

Roig said the school year was passing quickly as the holidays approached. She was counting the days to her impending wedding, but the countdown came to a screeching halt on a fateful Friday morning.

The day began with Roig watching the sun rise over the water as she prepared to leave for school. “Everything looked so calm and happy that I went back inside to get a camera and capture the moment.”

Three hours later she was just hoping to stay alive. “There’s nothing you can do to prepare for that,” she said. “Your life can change in a moment.”

Students were sharing their holiday traditions when loud, rapid gunfire erupted just outside the room. The classroom door was unlocked and Roig’s key was in her purse across the room. She doubted there was enough time to reach it. Instincts took over. She switched off the room light and instructed her students to quietly enter the small bathroom in the back. They wanted to know why.

One by one they entered. One standing on the toilet, another on the sink. Students were squished and stacked everywhere with orders to keep silent. “It didn’t seem possible, but we had to get in there,” Roig said.

They listened through the wall as the awful sounds continued. Roig quietly reassured her kids that “everything would be OK.”

“I love you all very much and am so thankful to be your teacher,” she told them.

“But I really didn’t think we would get out of there alive,” she admitted.



SAFE AT LAST

The shooting stopped and the cramped children were growing impatient. But Roig was not about to open the door.

“There are bad guys out there and we need to wait for the good guys,” she told them. She said students who believed in the power of prayer should pray and those who didn’t should think only on good things.

Things fell silent for several minutes, but it felt like hours. There was a knock on the bathroom door, and Roig was petrified.

“The police. Open the door,” someone shouted. But fearing a possible trick by the gunman, Roig refused. She asked that a badge be slipped under the door. When that request was granted, she inspected the badge and didn’t think it was authentic.

She said that “police would know where the keys for the door were.”

Moments later, a key was inserted and the door was opened. “I’m sure they thought they were only saving one child,” Roig said. But out came 15 students and their devoted teacher. “I will always hold on to that moment,” she said.



AFTERMATH

Roig stayed with family for several days as fear continued to grip her. She could not go anywhere alone.

But soon the teacher in her resurfaced. She was about to discover a new purpose for her life.

When school reopened a month later, Roig was determined to live out kindness, compassion and hope in front of her students and teach them to do the same for others. “After such an horrific event, I wanted my students to be part of something bigger.”

Hundreds of gifts arrived at the school daily, many coming from other countries. The students were excited and happy about receiving so many nice things and Roig used it as a teachable moment. They decided to mail some of the gifts to students in other schools “to make them feel the way you do now,” she told them.



CALLED TO TEACH

Roig knew at age 5 that she would be a teacher. It was then she asked her parents if she could baby-sit for the neighbors’ three-year-old.

A few years later, her first students were rows of stuffed animals. She often recreated lessons for them from what she had learned in school that day.

Roig, who was married in August, said she will teach again. She took a year off to launch her nonprofit organization, but remains in contact with her former students and their parents. “I am here if they need me.”

“Teachers save lives,” Superintendent John Sarandrea said during his introduction of Roig. Sarandrea said the presentation was even more meaningful to the entire staff “because it came from one of their peers.”

“Always know your purpose and do what you can,” Roig said.

Her website is Classes 4 Classes. The goal of the organization is to teach every child in America to have a genuine interest in the well-being of others, by providing a platform through which to actively engage them in social curriculum. By allowing students to choose whom they want to help and how, Classes 4 Classes gives nearly every class the opportunity to help others.

“My purpose is to promote success of children,” she said.

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)