A tape dispenser as a weapon? How Sandy Hook changed the way teachers think

Sandy Hook Elementary Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 in Newtown, Conn.
Carol Kaliff
Photo of Jordan Nathaniel Fenster

Ten years ago, Barry Palmer was a third-year teacher at Newtown Middle School. 

It was in that year that 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an event Palmer said changed his life and the lives of every teacher in the district, state and perhaps the nation.

“I feel like my career has been in many ways shaped by my experience,” he said. “Most teachers always have the feeling, ‘Oh, it couldn't happen here,’ and I think Sandy Hook, from my perspective, opened everyone's eyes like, ‘It can happen anywhere,” he said.

“Because Newtown is very much this quintessential New England town. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere," he continued.

Palmer teaches high school, so he wasn’t at the school when a gunman opened fire. He talks about the trauma from the experience as though it is felt in concentric circles, getting more palpable the closer one was to the shooting itself. 

“I think the whole country experienced the tragedy in different layers,” he said. “Teachers all over Connecticut felt very impacted by it. Teachers all over the country, people all over the country, are very impacted by it. I think the closer you were to the tragedy, you had different levels of impact.”

Even though Palmer said “I know people who are so much more impacted than myself,” he is brought back to that moment far too often. “Every time there's a school shooting, I go back in my memory to the thoughts of what was going through my head that day, how I was trying to help my students in the moment and then in the aftermath of the tragedy.”

Kate Dias teaches math at Manchester High School. She’s also president of the Connecticut Education Association, which represents many teachers in the state. Dias said she was teaching math at Manchester High School, “in room 271,” when she heard the news about the massacre.

“It was profound and surreal,” she said. “It was the kind of thing that you just couldn't imagine happening.”

It was a group of students who told Dias the news. Even though they were high school students and half a state away from the tragedy itself, she said they felt “overwhelmed and scared.”

“They just felt very vulnerable,” she said. 

Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, both Dias and Palmer say every teacher in Connecticut, and perhaps every teacher in the country, have plans in place beyond those formulated by school districts. 

“I have always plan B and plan A,” Dias said. 

For example, she knows that she can push the bookcase in her classroom against the door. She knows that she and her students can jump from the window on the flat roof below.

“There's a point in time at which they want you to kind of sit in the room and await instruction and then there's a point at which we take action,” Dias said.

As a math teacher, Dias has thought about what tools she has in her classroom that might be used to fend off an attacker. She knows how heavy her tape dispenser is. She has kept a rather heavy glass paperweight on her desk that she knows would do some damage if thrown

“Graphing calculators are heavy,” she said. “You don't look at a graphing calculator typically and think, ‘I could hurt someone with this if I had to.’ But unfortunately we have to be practical and say, ‘What is my plan A, B and C?’”

Palmer said Dias is not alone. 

“Most of the colleagues I've talked to about this, they run through the scenario in their head,” he said. “If someone were to come to the building, what would I do to protect my students? It’s almost a sad commentary on where we are in society, but it’s the responsible thing to do, because we are responsible for their safety and emergency before anything else.”

It’s not just teachers in Newtown or in Connecticut. Palmer said that hypervigilance is “pretty common in the profession if not universal.”

Sandy Hook and similar tragedies, like the massacre in Columbine and more recently in Uvalde, have fundamentally changed the teaching profession, Dias said.

“One of the aspects that we've tried to understand as we deal with the implications is that we have a somewhat similar exposure as to many of our first responders, where we have to have that level of preparedness, a level of awareness, a level of, potentially, risk,” she said. 

Dias said she does not compare the job of a police officer to that of a teacher, but “there's a fair amount of assumption of trauma on these jobs now that didn't exist 20 years ago.”

What frustrates Dias is the reality, as demonstrated by the massacre in Uvalde this year, that little has changed since Sandy Hook.

“In the aftermath of any of these events, whether they happen in Connecticut or in Texas, every student, every teacher feels like they happen close to them,” she said. “It's not an unusual occurrence anymore, unfortunately. Every time it happens, everyone gets shaken and everyone gets that moment of, ‘Oh my gosh, we're just as vulnerable today as we were 10 years ago. How come this still is happening to us? Why does nobody care enough to make it stop?’”

Palmer moved on from Newtown to Darien, where in the aftermath of Uvalde the Board of Education approved armed security officers in elementary schools

He said he’s “conflicted” on the issue. He’s not keen on the idea of guns on school grounds, but is aware that parents might “feel some peace of mind knowing that there will be a trained professional in the elementary schools.”

Dias would rather there be a stronger effort to fix the societal problems that create school massacres including, perhaps, mental health treatment and gun control legislation. Those might be what she would consider “offensive” strategies, as opposed to “defensive” strategies. 

“We're sitting here asking 7-year-olds to practice hiding in the corner and practice evacuation when it's not their problem, they didn't create this problem, yet they're expected to solve school shootings by hunkering down,” she said. “I think that there's a lot of questions about why is the problem today still so prominent? Why isn't it getting any better?”

Dias said a decade may have passed but “the death of those children and educators in Sandy Hook is as real today as it was when it first happened and we carry those individuals with us every day.” 

“They are a reminder of how precious the lives of the children in front of us are and how important it is that we cherish our opportunities because this is important work and schools are special places and they deserve to be protected,” she said.