First slowly and then in a sickening flood, word came of the killing of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Once everyone was accounted for, the death toll reached a staggering 20 first-graders, along with two AFT members: first-grade teacher Victoria Soto and school psychologist Mary Sherlach. Other staff killed were principal Dawn Hochsprung, behavioral therapist Rachel D'Avino, educational assistant Anne Marie Murphy and substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau. The shooter and his mother also died in the rampage, one of the worst mass slayings in U.S. history. AFT member and lead teacher Natalie Hammond was injured.
"The entire AFT community is shaken to its core by this massacre of young children and the school employees who care for and nurture them," AFT president Randi Weingarten said within hours of the tragedy on Dec. 14.
There were extraordinary acts of courage by school employees to lock down the building and protect children. Mary Ann Jacob (pictured at left), a school library assistant and AFT member, told reporters she was with 18 fourth-graders when she heard gunshots, U.S. News reported. She shouted "Lockdown!" and alerted the class across the hall. She then discovered that her own door wouldn't lock. After blocking the door from inside with a filing cabinet, Jacob and other library staff helped the children crawl to a closet. They told students it was a drill and kept them busy coloring with crayons. Police later had to slip a badge under the door before the staff would open it.
AFT officers have spoken with the leaders of our affiliates there—the Newtown Federation of Teachers, Newtown Federation of Education Personnel, and Newtown Federation of Custodians and Maintenance—pledging to do everything possible to support the community.
"I'm sick over the news," says Joanne Didonato, the slain principal's secretary and president of the Newtown Federation of Education Personnel, which represents secretaries, clerical staff and technical workers in Newtown's public schools. Didonato had stayed home sick that day.
Shortly after the shooting, Weingarten, AFT members and staff, along with an NEA crisis team from Ohio, traveled to Newtown to help coordinate resources that might help our members and the children they serve in and around the city of about 28,000 east of Danbury. Possible forms of support include training for substitute teachers, distribution of children's books on grieving, and help for school secretaries handling victims' records.
AFT Connecticut and the AFT also are working closely on several fronts, chiefly on grief counseling, school recovery and honoring those who were lost.
For now, members can send their condolences to the Newtown families.
For resources on helping students cope with bereavement, go to a special AFT page on supporting the grieving student.
The AFT praised first responders for their efforts to ensure the safety of students and staff. As in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the actions of AFT members, law enforcement and healthcare workers underscored the essential services provided by public employees. These courageous individuals did their utmost under horrific circumstances.
Americans saw that educators' "instincts are to love, to serve and to protect," Weingarten said on MSNBC Dec. 17. "That's why they are public servants. That's why first responders do what they do." The most important questions going forward, she told MSNBC, are "How do we create a safe society? How do we ensure that schools are safe havens?"
The AFT president said this latest shooting compels us more than ever to advocate for gun safety and mental health services. Newtown is going through trauma, she said. "We have to help them heal, we have to mourn, but then we have to act." [Annette Licitra; photo by Robert MacPherson/AFP—Getty Images; video by Pamela Wolfe]