Featured Interview

Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis: Sandy Hook Elementary School Survivor and Teacher
By Joe Uliano

In this featured interview, I recently spoke with Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis–a Sandy Hook Elementary School survivor, teacher, and hero. After working seven years as a teacher, Roig-Debellis faced the greatest challenge of her career on Dec. 14, 2012, as she made the decision to survive and protect her students. Be prepared to hear the chilling inside view of what transpired on that horrific day. We are hopeful this feature will get all of us thinking about how we can better secure our schools, with the anticipation of preventing any further attacks on our most vulnerable and precious population.

Here is her story:

“My students and I were sitting in our morning meeting, which is a very calm, quiet time. We had just greeted one another as we do every morning and we were somewhere in the midst of sharing our holiday traditions when very loud, rapid fire shooting began over and over and over. Our classroom, being the first in our school, I knew immediately that what I was hearing was a gun. There was not a moment of pause or hesitation. I got up, closed the door, and turned off the lights. My keys were across our classroom on my desk and I knew I did not have the time to retrieve them. Our door remained unlocked.

I turned to my students and said, ‘We need to get into our bathroom right now.’

They protested, ‘How?’ ‘Why?’ They were arguing, because our classroom bathroom was an impossibly small space. It was a single occupancy stall built for a small child, no larger than 3×4 feet, with a toilet in the center. However, if we were going to attempt to survive, this was our only option. We had to try to fit. We began rushing to the back of our classroom, shots ringing out as if we were at war on a battlefield. Our colorful, vibrant classroom faded immediately. We started pushing into our bathroom. I stood one student behind the toilet, a few on top, my tiniest little girl, I held up on the toilet paper dispenser until all of our bodies were finally piled in. That’s when I realized that the door opened in–we were in but couldn’t close the door. I began picking students up and putting them behind the door until eventually we were able to close it, and lock it. I told my students we had to be absolutely quiet. They were and we waited.

We stood there huddled, squished like sardines listening to the sheer horror of what was happening on the other side of a cinderblock–pure evil reigned all around us. As time passed, it grew increasingly hot, it was very difficult to take a deep breath–
this was not a space meant for 16 people to hide in–it was barely large enough for a six year old. Some of my students were growing very uncomfortable and started to whisper, ‘Can we get out?’ I reminded my students we were waiting for someone good to rescue us, and so we waited. In waiting, there were so many unknowns. I never thought we would make it through, we were just too close. As we waited, I told my students how happy I was to be their teacher, how glad I was that they were in my class and how loved they each were. I did not want the horror they were hearing to be their last memories. We waited for 45 minutes I’m told-I had no watch, no phone. It felt like an eternity.

Eventually a knock came at our door, terror struck as I was sure the gunmen had finally found us. Why wouldn’t he have, we were in the first classroom? I whispered to a student to ask who was there, I did not want a monster to know that there were 16 terrified people hunkered behind that door.

My student asked, and as you would reply to a small child the voice spoke, ‘Hey little fella, it’s the police, we are here to help you.’ At that point, I spoke. ‘If you are really the police we need your badge,’ which they immediately slipped under the door. As I held it in my hand, I could not believe it, not after what we had heard and endured. I said, ‘I don’t believe you, this does not look real; it looks like a toy badge. We aren’t unlocking the door. If you are really the police, you should have the master set of keys, and be able to unlock this door.”

They did have the master keys, and after trying 5, 6, or 7 different keys, the door finally popped open and pushed in. We were greeted by an entire SWAT team, head to toe body armor, masks, shields, machine guns. They began pulling our bodies out of the space we were wedged in. I never thought we would see the other side of that bathroom door, and I am eternally grateful that we did.”

Please tell us a little about Victoria Soto, who selflessly lost her life protecting her students.
Vicki Soto and I had an adjoining door. We opened it often to pass students through, share materials or ask questions. She was an incredible, extraordinary teacher. It was very clear that teaching was her passion and she exuded that in everything she did. She lived for her students and she gave every lesson, every experience, her all, every single day.

Did you suffer from survivor’s guilt?
No. I have never suffered from survivor’s guilt. Perhaps because for so long I didn’t believe we had survived. After I finally realized we in fact had, it was my faith that would not allow me to feel guilt for surviving. If I start questioning surviving, I am questioning my faith. And if I start questioning my faith, which has always been very strong, then what do I have?

You mentioned during a recent presentation, that you attended counseling to move on with your life. Would you say you were dealing with symptoms of PTSD and what did counseling do for you?
I did attend counseling. There were two main reasons I knew I needed the guidance and help of a mental health professional. First, I needed a plan for my students, to help them feel safe and secure in our new classroom space. Second, I needed someone to convince me that I was alive. I had a very difficult time believing we had survived based on our proximity and how unimaginable it seemed for us to fit in our tiny bathroom. My therapist, who is now a friend, was amazing, and helped me to grapple with, and ultimately tackle both of these issues. Whether or not I had symptoms of PTSD, I’m not entirely sure. I was ‘cleared’ of ever having PTSD. I’m sure there were remnants. I don’t think you survive what my students and I did and not have some trauma and stress that sticks with you. It seems impossible.

Unfortunately, officers are trained to see these tragedies, it’s what they sign on for, but not our school teachers. Do you feel that a part of your career objectives have been stolen from you?
Thankfully, no! What happened on that day has nothing to do with teaching, or who I am as an educator. I can gratefully say that since that tragic day, and every day since, who I am as an educator has only been bolstered. So much was irrevocably changed that horrific morning, for myself, my students, and so many incredible people. I am grateful that who I am as a teacher was not.

Should our teachers receive hands-on training rather than just drilling to better prepare them for these incidents?
I believe that awareness and preparation are both key. When I say that what happened at our school could have never happened there, that is a true statement. And yet, look what happened. Sometimes I fear we live in a culture of ‘it will never happen here, or to me’. I think that people need to have a heightened awareness of their surroundings, of who is in their presence, of what is happening around them. If there is a way to prepare teachers better for this, I fully support it!

Seeing what you’ve seen, are our children safer now in terms of school security?
This is important, it’s an important first step, but there is so much more to be done. I know that more can be done and needs to be done. However, I believe that there is a level of greater awareness today.

I think it’s important to address basic safety as a main concern. I travel a lot in my work now speaking and I am amazed that there are still schools in our country with unlocked doors. This is unacceptable. My students and I would not be here if our school hadn’t been locked. We are here because he spent three minutes shooting his way in through a window and we had time to hide. You can’t predict the unimaginable, but you can do everything in your power to make schools as safe as possible. When you tuck your children in bed at night, your front door is locked. Our schools doors need to be as well.

What do you say to the SWAT team that rescued your students and you?
Thank you. It is hard to articulate my gratitude to the SWAT team that found and rescued us from our bathroom hideout. I will be eternally grateful to each of them always.

Please tell us about the outpouring support that you and your students received, which led to the creation of your non-profit organization “Classes 4 Classes.”
Classes 4 Classes, initially was my life line. When I founded it back in January 2013, it was my way to find good in what seemed a very dark and evil world. Since, we have begun to transform the way social emotional learning is approached here in the United States. I am so proud of the work we do every day. Classes 4 Classes is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and we are the first ever social network for classrooms across the U.S. We currently serve classrooms in 25 states, and we plan to expand to all 50 this year! We provide a place for teachers to showcase student work, crowd fund for an educational need, and connect with other classrooms. We believe that social emotional learning needs to be active, and that students need tangible experience. That is what our website provides to thousands of students in their classrooms. We can’t wait until we are serving every single classroom in our great country! We believe we can change the way students learn to care about one another and connect so that there is no room for hate.

Joe Uliano has served as a police officer for the last fifteen years. During his time serving he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Caldwell University and a Master’s degree from Seton Hall University in Human Resources, Training and Development. Joe is currently attending Seton Hall University, where he is completing an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree in Educational Leadership, Policy and Management.