Last December, the small town of Newtown, Conn., was forever changed. The students, staff, parents, and community members of Newtown (Conn.) Public Schools were traumatized on Dec. 14, 2012, when lone gunman and former student Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
After months of nightmares, anxiety, second-guessing, what if’s, and therapy sessions, everyone in town is still trying to move on. At press time, a task force had recommended razing the school building and rebuilding a new one. The proposal was to go to the local school board and residents were expected to vote at a referendum.
DA Managing Editor Angela Pascopella met recently with Superintendent Janet Robinson, on how her community handled the aftermath of the shootings, and where the district stands.
Editor’s Note: Robinson is set to become Stratford (Conn.) Public Schools superintendent, just 24 miles south of Newtown, on July 1. John Reed was named Newtown’s acting superintendent as of May 6, and he becomes interim superintendent on July 1.
Q: Let’s start with the tragedy. Take us through your day.
Robinson: I was in the district office and my secretary told me the bus company reported a shooting at Sandy Hook. My first response, “That’s impossible. It must be some kind of domestic dispute in the area.”
I learned there was a shooting, but there were no details, so I went there. The scene was chaotic. I drove off the road and ran the rest of the way to the fire station near the school where students and teachers were beginning to gather. It became the staging area. We thought from an earlier report that maybe there was more than one shooter so we locked down all the schools.
The teachers had rallied their students. Some had the students in a circle, singing songs, another was telling stories. A teacher ran to me and said, ‘Thank God you are here. Where is Dawn?’ I had no idea. ‘We heard over the intercom that Dawn [Hochsprung] was shot. And we are all worried.’
And she couldn’t account for a couple of the classes. I had reports that some students were at the police station, at a home, at a childcare center. I felt eventually we’d find all those students.
It was hours before our chief of police took me outside. It was a surreal scene because there were emergency vehicles, people everywhere and helicopters flying overhead. He said, ‘This is very serious and very bad. There are fatalities.’ It just hit to the gut and I asked, ‘How many?’ He said, ‘It could be 30.’ I had to stay out there awhile.
Later, it was clear we didn’t have enough children for the parents left there. And there was no word. It was an awful place to be. Finally our governor, who was in and out of there, said to the parents, ‘I can’t stand this anymore. If you’re in here, your family member is dead.’
That was the day. It was a nightmare.
Q: In the days that followed, what steps did you take? Were any programs implemented to ease the pain and fear?
This happened on a Friday. Saturday morning I came in the office and my whole office staff plus some principals were here. Everybody wanted to help. And right away, mental health specialists, who were trauma-trained, and people from all over the country, began coming. The Commissioner of Education was here to help give some support.
Areas were set up for drop-in counseling for the community. We met with teachers that Sunday. Teachers were very concerned about how they would answer students’ questions. What if a kid says something that was inappropriate? Or what was inappropriate? We had a specialist talk about not re-traumatizing kids, but how to answer and respond to questions.
I came to realize how deep the pain was; it was well beyond grief. It was trauma and post-traumatic stress. And the questions about, “What’s best for kids? How soon should we get kids back in school?” was a big debate because a lot of people were not ready. But the best place for kids to be is in school. I didn’t want kids sitting at home watching TV and hearing this stuff. So we opened school (except for Sandy Hook students) the following Tuesday and had the mental health supports for teachers, students, parents. We had substitutes so if a teacher needed to just leave the room, the substitute would step in.
Q: How are students and staff recovering?
The students that were in the front hallway and survived, they heard and saw things you wouldn’t want any child to experience. I wouldn’t want to experience that. There are sounds that remind them and provoke a response—if a door slams or furniture on the floor above gets moved. We’re getting as much help as we can to the students.
It’s the teachers, too. They are not combat trained. So those things still linger.
Q: How are you recovering yourself?
The work helps. This has been incredible. We’re working seven days a week and taking care of people. I have so many emails, cards, and letters from superintendents from everywhere. It’s wonderful.
Q: What was involved in shifting Sandy Hook students to the nearby Monroe Chalk Hill School in early January?
It was incredible to make that kind of move in such a short time. When Monroe Superintendent James Agostine called to offer an empty school, that was a godsend. It had been empty for almost two years so it needed work. We had 80 volunteers in that school fixing ceiling tiles. We had donated materials. Someone came in and put in a new gym floor that’s just beautiful. Monroe teachers volunteered to help our teachers set up their rooms. We invited the families to bring their children so that they could see what was being done and the kids could feel comfortable.
Q: The district security team was reinitiated with Police Chief Michael Kehoe and Capt. Joe Rios at the lead. Can you tell us about that?
We had already been very serious about security prior to the event. We had buzz-in systems with cameras at every school. At the high school, we had security people there, you are greeted at the door, you have to show identification. Volunteers are all fingerprinted.
We really had to reinvigorate that. And the captain and the chief have been helping us research best practices. They’ve been part of the safety committee, which has been meeting almost every week, with our high school assistant principal, who is in the military and focuses on security, as chairman. And our neighboring communities have offered police because ours couldn’t accommodate it. Every school has had a police car outside at the school entrance and a policeman in the building. And we need to have as early a warning as possible, delay any intruder as long as possible and maximize how fast the first responders can get there.
Q: What are the most important safety changes since the tragedy?
The biggest thing is people becoming more aware. You used to find a back or side door propped open for convenience’s sake. The crisis plan is in place, but it was like an exercise without thinking about the ramifications.
And we’re working with the police. We are hiring our own security people, retired police officers and military. As part of their training, we rotate them through the schools so everyone knows the layouts. We’re having them head up security committees at each of the schools, looking for areas that might be vulnerable.
Chalk Hill has, which most of our schools have not had and what safe schools around the country seem to have, double doors at the entrance, so when you buzz visitors in the outside door, the inside door is still locked and they have to show identification at a window before the second doors are unlocked.
Q: Adam Lanza shot out a window. Will the new security hold back an intruder?
Many schools built in the 1950s, as some of ours were, have Lock Glass, and we have researched products that will keep the glass intact so it’s not easy for an intruder to shoot out and quickly get through.
Q: What can you say to fellow superintendents about security measures and coping with tragedy?
Without a playbook, we have to do what is right for kids. Unfortunately, however, you also have to balance the needs of the adults with the kids’ needs. But the kids are very therapeutic for the adults. And adults supply the compassion and steadiness for the kids.
Communities throughout the country are going to demand more security. We have to balance keeping kids as kids with the desires of people who want to build fortresses. We want to provide security without making the students feel ‘the only time I am safe is inside a fortress with someone armed protecting me, and with metal detectors.’
Q: You are about to be superintendent of Stratford Public Schools. Is it difficult to leave or is it the right time?
The emotional needs in the community and the work make it very hard to leave right now. I am trying very hard to make sure certain tasks are done, like handling grants and juggling people leaving and others coming aboard, and that the transition is handed off in a way that none of the balls in the air are dropped.
Q: What will you take with you to Stratford?
I’m always going to be looking at buildings with an enhanced eye on security. I’m going to be very concerned that we have good structure in place. Thank goodness, Newtown has a strong leadership team. The principals have worked together to support one another. I’m going to want that same kind of strong leadership team so, God forbid, if there is any crisis, people will deal with it and support one another.
Q: You have over your head the unfortunate fact of being chief of a district that had the worst school massacre in U.S. history. How do you shift that memory?
I think this community is doing a lot to pull together and move forward. I know forever in my career people will mention that. We know there wasn’t anything we could have done to prevent what occurred. But we can do things about recovery. We can do things to help people feel confident again and get on with their lives.
Go to www.DistrictAdministration.com/janet-robinson for video about December 14, 2012.