Heroic Sandy Hook teacher shares life lessons in Seneca Valley

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 5:24 p.m.

First-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig knew she had little time to hide her 15 students when gunfire erupted at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day in December.

“I knew something evil was going on. We had to hide, and hide fast,” said Roig, whose classroom was closest to the school's front door.

She and the children squeezed into a bathroom in the classroom, about 3 feet wide and 4 feet long, and locked the door.

“We stood there, huddled, squished like sardines, listening to the sheer terror,” she recalled. “I did not think we'd ever get out.

“I told them how much I loved them. I had completely accepted my own death.”

Forty-five minutes later, a SWAT officer knocked on the door.

After the massacre in Newtown, Conn., claimed 26 people, mostly students, residents proclaimed Roig a hero.

On a year's leave from teaching, she spoke on Thursday to teachers in Seneca Valley School District in an unannounced visit, invited by Superintendent Tracy Vitale.

“I think she must be really strong to be doing this,” said Courtney Williams, a high school biology teacher.

“We need our teachers to hear about what she did that day and how she has moved on,” Vitale said.

Like many districts starting classes next week, Seneca Valley is increasing security. The district is installing secure entrances in buildings, coordinating plans for police patrols and planning random metal detector searches, Vitale said.

The group of 825 faculty and staff members is the largest Roig has addressed. The shooting resulted in intense personal reflection, she said.

“I was given another moment, another chance. There are no words of explanation for what happened that day, and never will be.”

For weeks afterward, Roig could not be alone. She feared getting on a train or bus, or even shopping without someone else.

“I could not be in a room alone with the door closed. I could not sleep in the dark,” she said.

Yet last week, she got married. She has set up a nonprofit corporation, and she engages in public speaking.

When school started in another building three weeks after the Dec. 14 shooting, Roig and her students were overwhelmed. People sent teddy bears, flowers, cupcakes and toys — “So much love came from around the country and from around the world.”

Resilient, as children can be, the students were happy to see one another when they returned to school, Roig said. She asked them what they might do for others, and that led her to found Classes4Classes Inc., an organization that helps schools or classrooms develop projects to help other schools or classes.

“When we use active experience to show our students the impact of helping someone else, it ultimately changes our social climate,” Roig said.

The shooting precipitated national debate about gun control and school safety — a debate Roig said is important, but “it is not my platform.”

Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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