Transcript: Newtown school superintendent testifies on gun violence & Sandy Hook elementary mass shooting
Transcribed and edited by Jenny Jiang
Transcript of testimony by Dr. Janet Robinson, Superintendent of Schools, Newtown, Connecticut, on the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Jan. 16, 2013:
Thank you very much.
I’m here to give a face to the children, the staff, the families of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut.
On a beautiful winter morning in December, buses dropped off their precious cargo: Nearly 500 elementary children who filed in their school with the expectations of all little children that good things will be happening today and little in the way of cares – maybe “What’s for lunch today?” “Will I have a chance to play with my friends at recess?”
In the first three classrooms in the front hallway, the little first graders’ coats were hung up and morning routines began with their circle time on the rug with their teacher. There, they discussed the calendar, the activities of the day, along with an activity for a responsive classroom.
This was a typical routine of Sandy Hook Elementary School – a place that exudes caring, happiness, nurturing from the moment you walk through the doors. If you pass a child or an adult in the halls, you’ll get a smile and a cheerful greeting.
Children’s work is posted in the halls so you know you’re in a kid place immediately. Sandy Hook Elementary School seemed like the safest place on Earth in this quiet little suburban community.
This school has been known for the superb education that students receive for over 50 years and has been acknowledged as a vanguard school. Not only has it been a high-achieving school, but its tradition of caring about the whole child is well-known and part of that tradition. This school is an important piece of the fabric of this community.
That morning was like every other morning. After all, routines are comforting for kids.
Until about 9:30 a.m. when a troubled young man carrying two guns – one of them an AR-15 assault rifle – shot out the glass window to bypass the buzz-in system at the door and changed the lives of so many people in the next few minutes.
He first went to the office directly across from the front door where normally three secretaries would be working. Only one was there at the time and she flew under the desk, dragging the phone with her. Fortunately, he didn’t check.
Then he went back out in the hall where he was confronted by the Principal, Dawn Hochsprung, the lead teacher, Natalie Hammond, and the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, who emerged from a meeting in a conference room.
I could just picture Dawn’s indignation that someone would dare enter her school and put her babies at risk. It would be so like her to be the protective mother hen and never think of her own safety but only, of course, of making him stop right then and there. I can visual her trying to take charge of this unthinkable threat. Dawn – ever the passionate educator – would do anything to protect her charges. That’s where they found the bodies of Dawn and Mary, rushing toward the attacker. Natalie, fortunately, survived the attack with serious injuries.
The shooter bypassed first grade classroom on the left and began shooting in the second first grade classroom, killing the school’s permanent substitute teacher, Lauren Russeau, and all but one child, who was clever enough to play dead and didn’t even whimper.
By this time, the teacher in the third room had crammed as many children as possible in the bathroom, was trying to find hiding places for others when the [shooter] took aim on her and her students. Vicki Soto, who was so excited to finally reach her dream to be a teacher, threw herself in front of her students – such incredible bravery from a young, first grade teacher.
Anne Marie Murphy was the educational assistant for a young boy with some special needs, and she died trying to shield him, as was the case with Rachel DaVino, a behavior therapist.
None of these brave women were trained in combat; they were elementary school educators dedicated to educating their young children. So their first response when confronted by this terror was to protect their children.
Thank goodness for our first responders; they arrived in three minutes, which is incredible in a town of 60 square miles, mainly country roads. They saved innumerable lives as the shooter carried enough ammunition to have continued throughout the entire school and this loving little elementary school was helpless in the face of this assault.
Twenty beautiful and innocent little first graders were lost that day in a senseless act. They were no match for a troubled person with an AR-15.
At the fire house where we had gathered to try to sort through the events of the day, the true horror of the assault began to become apparent as parents came running, crying, to the station, looking for their children.
As we released children to their parents, we began to realize we did not have enough children. There were parents without children. It was then that I was beginning to realize the magnitude of this horror.
Six dedicated educators were lost, including a phenomenal principal, Dawn Hochsprung, who took over the leadership of Sandy Hook two-and-a-half years ago. She was an experienced principal whose passion for this important work was immediately evident. She had a vast knowledge, good instruction, and coached her already-effective teachers to stretch even further for excellence. She truly enjoyed being an elementary principal and joined in all the fun at the elementary school with gusto. Whatever theme day the school was celebrating, she was all in. She might show up in a district administrators’ meeting in pajamas and fuzzy slippers or dressed like a fairy princess. The students knew that she liked to have fun as part of the learning yet she was serious about ensuring that every child had a highly-effective teacher. She along with her colleagues lost that day represent a huge loss to the teachers of all those children they would have impacted in their professional lives.
Now, we as a community are struggling to pick up the pieces and determine what this new “normal” looks and feels like. Our sense of security has been shattered. Innocent children and the people who teach them were gunned down. We are all forever changed.
Some families have a huge hole left by a six-year-old who should be doing the funny, silly things that six-year-olds do.
Families who have their children are still suffering through the nightmares and fears of sounds and strangers. Children are even fearful in their own classrooms.
Who knows what the long-term impact will be for those children who have had the innocence of childhood shattered?
What do I say to the parents who want to be assured that when they put their children on the bus to school they will come home?
How do I protect our students without creating fortresses?
How do we let our children freely enjoy being children?
I’ve heard that the measure of a society is how they treat their children. So help me give these children their futures.
I would just like to share with you – as one final thought – a fourth grade student, Congresswoman Pelosi, sent you a letter and her name is Ava.
And she says, “I am a fourth grade student in Newtown, Connecticut. After the shooting in my town, I started an online petition asking for help from the President, Congress to change the gun laws. It got a lot of support from all over America but then I had to take it down because the police were worried about my safety. What everyone in Newtown wants is for you to ban semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines and to make everyone use guns safely. This is important so that a person cannot shoot many people at once and/or injure people badly. Semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines end lives and put lives at risk. This ban will help prevent individuals, families, and communities from suffering the way we are now in Newtown. At Newtown’s Municipal Center, there are hundreds of thousands of cards and pictures from children and adults from all over America. It’s so sad. I think people against changing gun laws should walk through the long hallway and read one card out of every box to realize how many people want this change. We would appreciate anything you can do to help. Sincerely, Ava S.”
This is some of the thousands and thousands of cards and letters that are gathered in the hall. It just shows the support and the feeling among the people in this country. Thank you for doing what you’re doing here.
- C-Span.org: Video of House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on gun violence on Jan. 16, 2013
- DemocraticLeader.gov: “Gun Violence Prevention: A Call to Action.”
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