Lebanon Reporter

December 17, 2012

Teachers prepare to return to classes after massacre

By Eli Saslow and Emma Brown
The Washington Post

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Not long ago, officials here promoted their public schools at conventions and conferences across the state, printing newsletters detailing "the highlight of Newtown." The students were among the state's best; the teachers were highly rated. The town had always revolved around its seven public schools — and that was true again Sunday.

One school was the crime scene.

One hosted the prayer vigil.

One more served as the local "crisis center."

And inside another school, located just a mile from Sandy Hook Elementary, the teachers and administrators who had survived a mass shooting gathered for their first staff meeting since the attack. They met in a room in the back of Reed Intermediate School, behind locked doors, state troopers and a flag at half-staff. A team of grief counselors drove from a hospital in nearby Danbury to speak with them. The Red Cross donated trays of food and rolling bins filled with teddy bears.

For about two hours, the teachers spoke with counselors and shared in their grief. They remembered the 20 students and six colleagues who were killed Friday. They spoke about the horrors they had prevented and the horrors they had witnessed. And then, near the end of the meeting, they spoke again about teaching.

In the days ahead, schools in Newtown will once again become schools, and teachers will once again teach. Administrators at Sandy Hook have already found a likely replacement school — a vacant building that is structurally sound but filled with mothballs in nearby Monroe — where students and teachers will restart class in a few weeks. "Minute by minute, we will try to get back to the familiar," Sandy Hook teacher Janet Vollmer said.

But what if the familiar has changed?

Across the country Sunday night, teachers and administrators began preparing to return to their classroom Monday morning, a weekly routine that suddenly amounted to an act of resiliency, a small test of courage. Schools across Connecticut arranged for extra security as a precaution. Principals reviewed emergency preparedness documents with their staffs. Teachers in Newtown planned to meet as a group Monday about the best ways to reassure their students, even as they worried about safety themselves.

Teaching has never been a dangerous profession, but each mass shooting changes classrooms in subtle ways. Even before Friday's shooting, Sandy Hook adhered to the intensifying security rhythms of American education in the past two decades: More surveillance cameras. More threat codes issued over the loudspeaker. More fire drills. More "high alerts" and "code reds." Sandy Hook practiced lockdowns twice each year, once to prepare for a threat coming from outside the school and once again in case of a shooter inside the hallways.

The Sandy Hook principal, Dawn Hochsprung, had recently sent a letter to parents about increased security: "Every visitor will be required to ring the doorbell at the front entrance," she wrote.

First-grade teacher Vicki Soto had sent home her own class newsletter, addressed to "Dear Fantastic Families": "All volunteers will need to be fingerprinted before they can volunteer," she wrote.

None of it was enough to keep a gunman in a black vest from firing into the school's front entrance and barreling through the door.

"How can we put one foot in front of the other?" one Sandy Hook teacher wrote in an e-mail to a friend on Sunday before the staff meeting. "How can we feel safe?"

That has become a recurring question in the country's public schools. It has echoed since April 20, 1999, when two armed students killed 12 classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Classes at that school were canceled for two weeks before teachers and students returned to a different building. Teachers had no books or materials. Academics all but ceased. The Columbine community muddled through the rest of the year in the same manner that teachers and students will attempt to endure in Newtown: Awash in grief, and searching for ways to cope.

Columbine biology teacher Douglas Craft wanted his students to see that "something in life was good," so he veered from the syllabus and invited a bird lover and her hawk to come to the school auditorium and entertain the teenagers. Teacher Joe Higgins tried to busy his students with constant assignments, but then became more forgiving in his grading. "They were traumatized," he said. "They just couldn't concentrate."

English teacher Paula Reed was relieved to go back to school — until she started running into ghosts of her old self in the classroom. She studied the notes that she had written before the shooting in the margins of her planning book. They were so purposeful, so uncomplicated. "It sort of felt like someone I'd known, but it wasn't me anymore," she said. For the next three years, Reed struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her hair fell out. She broke into hives. She had a tension headache for months and eventually took a leave of absence.

Thirteen years later, she is still teaching at Columbine, and she is still spooked by the annual intruder drill that requires her to huddle silently with students in the classroom.

"I know how long it lasts, and I know how dark it gets," she said.

It was the outcome that teachers in Newtown were already beginning to dread Sunday night.

In a house just outside of town, Dori Parniawski prepared to begin her week as a kindergarten teacher at Middle Gate Elementary, just down the road from Sandy Hook. A second-grade teacher, she had spent the weekend trying to avoid the news. Class at Sandy Hook had been canceled for at least a week, but she would be returning the next morning to a school that was in many ways indistinguishable. "Their classrooms look like my classrooms. Their students look like my students," she said. She had friends who taught at Sandy Hook. Her 4-year-old son was about to start school.

Throughout the weekend, Middle Gate's administration had been e-mailing her offers of free counseling and advice from therapists about how to discuss "loss, sadness or grief," with 5- and 6-year-olds. Now, as darkness began to fall Sunday night, Parniawski searched her closet for a school outfit and thought about what she would tell her students.

"I'm going to look them in the eye and be calm," she said, choosing a jacket.

"I'm going to tell them that this world has bad guys, but not very many," she said, picking out matching pants.

She had spent eight years turning her classroom into what she called a "safe space," with cushioned mats on the floor and pictures of students and their families decorating the walls. Her original lesson plan for the week had revolved around Christmas. She had bought decorative paper for the students to cut into trees and shapes. They would write their own holiday stories and make crafts to give as presents to their parents.

"Can we still do that?" she wondered.

She set out her outfit. She read the staff e-mails about the emotions she might encounter on a Monday morning at school. She was ready for grief. She was ready for anger and obliviousness and fear.

She was ready for work.

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Julie Tate contributed to this report.