- Teacher who saved 15 students from shooting rampage shares her story

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Sandy Hook first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis speaks to Centennial High School students during their Unity Week.

There are days when jobs push us beyond the call of duty.

For Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, that day was Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman opened fire on her elementary school.

“Our school experienced an unimaginable tragedy when 26 lives were taken far too soon, senselessly and brutally,” the Sandy Hook first-grade teacher told Centennial High School students Friday.

“I tell you my story because I think it may make a difference in how you view each moment and each day when you are truly aware that your life can change in an instant,” she said.

Roig-DeBellis spoke to Centennial students during the school’s Unity Week, an annual celebration of diversity and school community that focused this year on the ethics and importance of caring.

Roig-DeBellis acted quickly when gunfire erupted at her school in Newtown, Conn., on a Friday morning. She locked her 15 students in a tiny classroom restroom until public safety officials came to their rescue about 45 minutes later.

Many touted Roig-DeBellis as a hero after the Sandy Hook shooting. In 2013, she was honored as one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year alongside Nobel Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai, Congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabby Giffords and Emmy-nominated actress Kerry Washington.

Following the Sandy Hook shooting, Roig-DeBellis founded the nonprofit organization Classes 4 Classes, which helps teach K-8 students kindness, empathy and “paying it forward” by helping elementary school classes sponsor educational gifts for other classrooms.

“Care boils down to connectedness,” Roig-DeBellis said in a breakout session with student council members after the assembly. “When we realize we are all connected, we realize we all have to care about one another. Disconnect happens when people think they stand alone.”

Believing social curriculum is as important as academic curriculum, Roig-DeBellis said teaching children to interact and care for one another prepares them to be successful adolescents and adults.

Today Roig-DeBellis is on a yearlong sabbatical from Sandy Hook as she develops Classes 4 Classes and makes presentations across the country. Friday marked her first presentation for high school students.

During the past 14 months, Roig-DeBellis has met with the likes of President Barack Obama, Arianna Huffington, Anderson Cooper and Lady Gaga.

“Did I think our nation responded adequately?” Roig-DeBellis said during the breakout question-and-answer session. “It’s a really hard question to answer. I think about what happened, and I don’t know how as a leader, administrator or president you would know how to respond.

“Do I think enough has been done? No, not every school has what I think it should have, but I’m very grateful gun control and mental health are being discussed on the platform and level in government it is. We need to value children’s lives the same as we do CEOs.”

Dec. 14, 2012

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - After telling the story of how she hid with 15 first-graders in a tiny classroom restroom during the Sandy Hook shooting and founded the nonprofit Classes 4 Classes in its aftermath, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis received a standing ovation.

Roig-DeBellis began her seventh year teaching and sixth year at Sandy Hook happier than ever.

She had just gotten engaged over the summer and felt like life’s possibilities were endless.

A gorgeous sunrise stopped Roig-DeBellis on her way to school Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, prompting her to snap several photos from her sliding door.

Hours later, her life was forever changed.

As Roig-DeBellis and her students sat in a circle, talking about their holiday traditions, loud, rapid gunfire erupted around 9:30 a.m.

She knew evil and bad were in close proximity to her and the students. There was only one question: Did she want her students and her to live? There was only one answer: yes.

In a split second, Roig-DeBellis knew the class had to hide, and fast. She shut the door, turned off the lights and asked her 15 students to do something that sounded impossible: To squeeze into the 3-by-4-foot class restroom — a space Roig-DeBellis had never used.

Shots rang out as if the class were on a battlefield in a war zone, as the first-grade students quickly piled into the restroom.

Roig-DeBellis told the students to be absolutely quiet. They waited, huddled and squished like sardines.

“Pure evil and horror reigned,” Roig-DeBellis said. “My students looked up at me with pleading eyes. ‘Miss Roig, I want to have Christmas.’ ‘Miss Roig, I want to hug my mom.’ “Miss Roig, I don’t want to die today.’”

Roig-DeBellis thought of her precious students. Her fiancé, Nick. The gorgeous beach she was to get married on.

In the moments that Roig-DeBellis thought were their last, she told her students it was going to be OK. That she was so lucky to be their teacher. That she was so happy to have them in her class. That she loved them very, very much.

She took their faces in her hands and said, “Show me your smiles, show me your happy thoughts.”

One student said, “I’ll lead the way, Miss Roig. It’s OK; I know karate.”

An eerie silence filled the school before police officers arrived.

Shaken, Roig-DeBellis refused to acknowledge they were real officers, even after they slipped a badge under the door. She told them to find the keys to the door and unlock it themselves if they were really the police.

Eventually the door unlocked.

“They probably thought they were rescuing one small child, not an entire class,” Roig-DeBellis said. One at a time, officers pulled students out of the restroom.

“I said, ‘Thank you,’” she said. “My journey did not end in that bathroom, and I will hold on to that moment forever.”

Roig-DeBellis said there is always the possibility your life can change in an instant, sometimes gratuitously and sometimes not.

“There are two things to take away,” she said. “First, live your life in a way so that if it were your last day you would feel well about the choices and decisions you had made until that point. Second, you are the one who holds the power to react to those situations.”

The aftermath

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Student council members James Moua and Maria Fuentes-Deonate were among members of the student body wearing bright red Centennial community T-shirts at the assembly. The shirt sales raised $1,756.60 for Classes 4 Classes.

There was no making sense of the Sandy Hook massacre.

“We had to make a choice to focus on terror and destruction or good and love,” Roig-DeBellis said.

Her class chose the latter.

After the shooting, Sandy Hook students and staff members were surrounded by an outpouring of love and support from around the world.

Gifts of teddy bears, cupcakes, recess toys, books, crayons — you name it — came by the box full.

“While my students were beyond deserving, I knew that if I didn’t take that moment to teach that when you get, you have to give, I would be missing my mark as their teacher,” Roig-DeBellis said.

“I said, ‘In life, when somebody does something nice for you, what is your job?’ We need to be nice to somebody else and care about somebody else, and that is what we’re going to do so they can feel as happy and cared for as we do right now.”

Her students’ eyes widened with excitement. Shortly after, Classes 4 Classes was born.

“It’s about teaching children to be compassionate and empathetic and actively doing,” Roig-DeBellis said.

“There are no words for 12-14-12. We are so aware of that void of lives lost. I live with that every minute of my life, and I need to honor their lives.”

Jacque Nelson, Centennial student body president, presented Roig-DeBellis with a $1,756.60 check for Classes 4 Classes after her talk. The money was made up of donations students gave for red CHS Community T-shirts that they wore for the assembly.

Nelson also introduced a new pledge students could take.

“In order to keep spreading your message, starting today, each Centennial student can take a pledge to promise to make a positive change,” Nelson said. “Students can pick a date they wish to complete a project or community service opportunity and post a picture on their Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag chscommunity.”

After the breakout session, Nelson said, “We want to make it clear we want to celebrate moving forward as a school. We want to take this and grow with it — to find something new we can implement and change about the community around us.”

Friday’s assembly inspired student council members James Moua, a junior, and Maria Fuentes-Deonate, a freshman.

“I feel like contributing and promoting more in the community,” Moua said. “I feel like reaching out to students who don’t feel like part of the student body. It’s our duty as student representatives, and it should be second nature.”

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