Heroes are people capable of incredible feats of courage, but they don't expect any thanks for their actions. Instead, they're content to look for ways to teach us how to pay it forward and make the world a safer place, one person at a time. Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis is no different.
On December 14, 2012, while working as a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Kaitlin heard the initial shots and immediately recognized what was about to happen. RECOIL OFFGRID spoke with Kaitlin about how she survived this harrowing event and protected her students. She shares her insights for anyone who might face a similar situation.
RECOIL OFFGRID: What was the first sign that something was wrong?
Kaitlin Roig-Debellis: I had probably a very different experience than many in our school that day in the fact that my classroom was the first one in the school. I know there were a lot of reports that they heard something, but didn't know what it was. The second the first shot was fired, I heard it and knew what it was immediately. I teach first grade. We were seated about 15 feet from where the shooting began. We were not at all removed from the situation.
ROG: When you heard the shot, what was your first reaction?
KRD: We needed to hide. Being that we were in such close proximity I understood that we didn't have time to run, because if we were to have gone out our door we would have had to choose going left or right. Going right would have headed right toward the shooter and going left would've been a long straight hallway that I wasn't confident we'd have time to get down. I knew immediately that hiding was going to be my students' and my only option.
ROG: So you hid inside your own classroom?
KRD: Within our own classroom we had a closet that had shelving so that wouldn't have worked, and we had a bathroom. When I say bathroom, you're probably thinking of a bathroom you use at home or at work. It was not that. It was an impossibly small space that was built for a tiny child. Our school is very old; it was built in 1958, I think. So the classroom bathroom was very old and very, very small. It was about 3 by 3 and 1/2 feet with a toilet in the center, but for us, it was that or nothing because I couldn't lock our classroom door. So if we didn't attempt to fit into the bathroom we'd have just been sitting ducks.
ROG: How many children were in your classroom?
KRD: On that day, 15 students were present.
ROG: Can you walk us through those few moments? You heard the shot and said, “Class we need to hide, we're going to go into the bathroom,” and you were able to get all 15 children in there?
KRD: When the shooting began, luckily my students were seated in our morning meeting, which is a very calm and quiet time, so I had their undivided attention. When the first shots were fired from the outside of the school, I got up, closed our door, and turned off our lights. I realized that my keys were across the classroom on my desk, and I knew I didn't want to risk the time it would take to get them, so our classroom door remained unlocked.
I turned back around to my students and said, “We need to get into our bathroom.” And my students of course began to say, “What do you mean?” “How are we going to do that?” because they understood having used our bathroom every day how tiny it was. I, as an adult, had never been in that bathroom until that day. It was simply not a space that was large enough for an adult to fit comfortably, but for us in those moments, that really was our only option. After I repeated myself a couple times my students understood that I meant business and that this was going to happen.
We started rushing to the back of our classroom to where our bathroom was, and we just started piling in, which was me picking students up. I put one little boy behind the toilet where the flusher is, a couple of my little boys stood on top of the toilet, and we just literally pressed our bodies inside of it.
ROG: And then you just closed the door and waited it out, or did the shooter enter the classroom?
KRD: We did. Our bathroom door opened in, so once we were finally in we couldn't close the door because we were blocking it. That was horrific because it was just another moment of “What are we going to do?” But thankfully I was able to pick up my students and cram them behind the door, so we were able to close it and lock it. I did not turn the light off in the bathroom, it stayed on. Before I closed the door, there was a storage cabinet that was kept right outside our bathroom door that was on wheels. It was a pretty large piece of furniture, but it moved easily. So I just wheeled that right in front of our door and basically barricaded us in.
I am sure the shooter came into our classroom. The police can't tell us that, but we were the first classroom and he only caused harm in the hallway and in classrooms 2 and 3, so I can't imagine he bypassed classroom 1. I don't know why he would have, but I'll never know.
ROG: So you didn't hear anyone walking around or anything like that?
KRD: We heard everything.
ROG: As far as the shooter walking around, was there anything to indicate that he was in fact inside the classroom?
KRD: What you have to understand is that when you're in a tiny space it all becomes relative, meaning what we heard on the other side of our bathroom wall, being out of cinder block, which was probably 7 inches, that's where our principal and school psychologist lost their lives. We heard everything, but it was hard to determine in our space where what we were hearing was. Was it in the next classroom? Was it coming from the cafeteria? It was hard to pinpoint where the sounds came from.
ROG: So you and your students managed to avoid any injury?
ROG: How long were you there before you realized it was OK to come out?
KRD: We were in our bathroom, I'm told, for 45 minutes. We were the last class found and rescued in our school. I was not opening the door, so we were waiting for someone to find us, and eventually they did. The SWAT team found us.
ROG: If you had it to do over again, would you do anything differently knowing what you know now?
KRD: No, I wouldn't be here, and that I know. The classroom had an adjoining door, and we had bullet casings on our floor that had rolled under our adjoining door.
ROG: Has this changed your everyday preparedness in any way, whether it be supplies you carry with you or enrolling in self-defense training or anything like that?
KRD: No, but something that's important to know is that I have always been a very hyper-vigilant and hyper-aware person, sometimes to a disservice. After the tragedy, I sought out counseling like anyone should after such a horrific encounter. One of the things that individual helped me work through was that my hyper-alertness and hyper-awareness that probably stems from being someone who is adopted is probably what saved us on that day. Because while many might have been thinking, “What is that? Is that a firecracker? Did something fall?” and took their time, I went into lockdown within 30 seconds. And I can only attribute that to whatever's always been inside of me as a person who is very aware.
I think that if I were to give anyone a piece of advice about preparedness or safety at a school or any public place is just being aware. Where are the exits? Who's coming in and out? Where is a place you could hide? Don't have your back to an entrance. Things I think a lot of people take for granted or don't think about. I think a lot of people turn that little voice off, and I'd recommend they keep it on.
ROG: Do you think ego can make people reluctant to react decisively in an emergency situation? Say, if someone thinks there's a fire, they don't want to be the first one to say it for fear they might be wrong.
KRD: But what's the worst thing that can happen? One of the people whom I've met over the past few years is a gentleman who used to be involved in Israel with their defense. He and I did some training together, and I explained my heightened awareness to him and that led us to a discussion about profiling. What he taught me is that in our country, we have this very negative connotation around the word “profiling.” We think of it as racial. We think of it as singling people out, whereas in Israel they think of it as a very positive word. You're aware of who's connected to a situation. You're aware if someone looks out of place. You're aware if you're in an audience and someone's sitting alone and not at all interacting with people around them. These are all things that should heighten our awareness to say, “Hmm, something might not be right,” and pay attention to it. I think in our country we need to be better at that in a positive way of being aware of our surroundings. If somebody looks like they're not in the right place for whatever reason, we need to pay attention to that. I really don't think we do a good job of that.
ROG: Police have also said the same thing — that it's good to profile people because it might save your life.
KRD: Right, but it's not racial. A Caucasian female could look very out of place and you should pay attention. I think the other thing that very much comes to mind in terms of school safety specifically is that I wouldn't be talking to you right now if our school had not been a secure, locked building. There's this misconception that Sandy Hook Elementary School was this very laissez-faire place. While it was idyllic and very much like Pleasantville, it was not laissez-faire. We took safety and security extremely seriously.
Our doors were locked, there were double sets of locked doors, there was video surveillance, there was voice recognition. You were not getting in our school without three secretaries knowing who you were, seeing your ID, and buzzing you in. That monster shot his way through a window. There's still so many schools in our country — and I know this because I visit lots of different states — that aren't locked. That's a huge problem. It's 2016. We lock our homes, we lock businesses, we certainly lock large corporations that make millions of dollars. We need to lock schools.
ROG: Do you know why schools tend not to be locked? Is it because of fire codes or something along those lines?
KRD: The arguments that I have heard is that our schools are such special, warm places that we don't want them to feel like a prison. That's the most common argument that I have found. So was our school. That door being locked did not diminish or take away one ounce of the warmth and specialness that lived within those walls. Children's lives and teachers' lives are far more important. And look what happened at our school with our locked doors. It's not a complete solution, but it is a really important step in the right direction. We go home at night and put our children to bed, and our front door is locked. Why shouldn't our school doors be locked?
ROG: Are you still teaching at Sandy Hook Elementary?
KRD: No, I started a nonprofit in 2013 and have written a book titled Choosing Hope, and that keeps me very busy. I teach in different ways now. I travel and speak all around the world about my story, and I also now teach at college level. I teach future teachers about being teachers and love it.
To learn more about Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, go to https://kaitlinroigdebellis.org.