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The heartbreak and heroism of the teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were on the minds of every New York City teacher as the 1.1 million children they care for each day returned to class on Monday morning.
Teachers at the Connecticut school acted quickly and bravely to shield their children from the lone gunman, locking their doors, crowding the children into cubbies, bathrooms and closets, hiding them under desks and between bookcases and the wall. One library clerk led 18 4th-graders on their hands and knees to a storage room, then gave them paper and crayons to keep them calm and quiet. The teachers hid their students so successfully that when the police entered the building, it was completely still.
District Superintendent Janet Robinson lauded the “incredible acts of heroism” that “ultimately saved so many lives.”
“The teachers were really, really focused on their students,” she told reporters on the day following the shooting.
And still the price they paid was high: six adults — four teachers, a school psychologists and the principal — and 20 1st-graders died.
The UFT was quick to respond to the tragedy by reaching out on the night of the shootings to the 18 UFT members living in and around the Newtown area and by offering help to all the members of the Newtown Federation of Teachers.
Addressing the natural feelings of anxiety and unease among New York City’s students and staff in the wake of the massacre, UFT President Michael Mulgrew advised chapter leaders to encourage staff to have “thoughtful and meaningful conversations with our colleagues and, when appropriate, our students about the random and senseless violence at Sandy Hook.” He suggested that the mental health professionals at schools — guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers — be enlisted to provide the proper strategies for conducting those conversations. Mulgrew counseled members seeking further assistance to contact the licensed counselors at the UFT’s Member Assistance Program at 1-212-701-9620.
UFT Director of School Safety David Kazansky noted that the union is working with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators and the Department of Education to make sure safety protocols are being followed in every school. In a joint letter, Mulgrew, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and CSA President Ernest Logan asked every school community to review its visitor control procedures as well as the General Response Protocols for shelter-ins, lockdowns and evacuations.
Mulgrew asked the chapter leaders to convene a meeting of the safety committee to ensure that all safety information is up to date and correct. Among the items to be reviewed, he said, should be: procedures for visitors entering the school; effectiveness of the PA system; awareness and effectiveness of evacuation sites; scheduling of drills in the event of an emergency; and a check of procedures and supplies by Building Response Teams.
UFT Staff Director Ellie Engler and Lila Ezra, the executive director of the UFT Member Assistance Program, met with the executive board of the Newtown teachers’ local on Dec. 16 to offer support in moving forward. Engler said that the UFT offered to help set up a counseling program modeled on the UFT’s own Victim Support Program. While all were mourning the loss of children and colleagues, Engler said some admitted to being “very scared” as they faced the days and weeks ahead.
“We think of this horrendous act as happening in another town,” Engler noted, “but as educators, we are all connected.”
Mulgrew acknowledged that the pain of Sandy Hook would make the winter recess “more difficult and less joyous” but he expressed his confidence in the ability of the city teachers “to do the great work you do even in adversity.”