Just doing their job
In the minutes before the tornado hit Briarwood Elementary, special education aide Suzanne Haley's students ducked beneath desks while teachers hovered above to block debris.
"It sounded like a jet, low, coming closer and closer," Haley said.
Minutes later, she and others were jammed in the wreckage of the school, conscious, but struggling to move. She couldn't free her leg; it was impaled by a metal stake recently attached to a student's desk.
"By the grace of God, I kept it together," Haley said. "I couldn't go into hysterics in front of my children, in front of the other students. Not even till after surgery, after I came out of anesthesia, did I lose it.
"These children, we see their smiles, we see their tears every day, in and out. We love them, and they're our babies.
"It's nothing anybody wouldn't do."
In Newtown, in Moore, any time a headline speaks of a hero teacher, the educators inevitably accept thanks and deflect the praise. Some lament that they couldn't prevent students' injuries or react before the first shot.
The response is just part of the job, educators say.
"They're probably much less comfortable in the spotlight and more comfortable in the classroom," said Gregg Garn, dean of the University of Oklahoma's Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education in Norman, which has hundreds of alumni working in Moore's schools.
And they're right: It is part of the job. School safety and crisis response is a constant discussion in every school, especially since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, which left one teacher and 14 students dead, including the two gunmen.
Safety comes up in prospective teachers' college courses, Garn said, and it's one of their first lessons when they take over a classroom. In most schools, there's explicit, site-specific instruction on where to go in case of a fire, how to lock down during a shooting and how to stay safe during a natural disaster.
"They're willing to put themselves in harm's way," he said. "What you saw (in Moore) was just a reflection of that."
Any time there's a story of a school in crisis, other schools around the country evaluate their own teachers' plans, their unique what-ifs, educators said. In Moore, the conversation is well underway.
Robert Romines, the assistant superintendent for Moore schools, supports adding storm shelters to all schools, but said "money is an obstacle." New schools will be rebuilt on the sites destroyed last week, and he hopes those, at least, will have the budget for safe rooms.
District administrators said the tornado procedures laid out in their handbook and crisis plans worked, for the most part.
"We have 23 sites where the faculty and staff just went above and beyond to protect 23,000-plus children in our district," said Romines, who takes over as superintendent in July. "It was a miracle in how they handled things."
Rebuilding, he said, is "the beginning of our healing process."
But teachers who've survived traumatic events say there's more to healing than that.
Hard lessons learned
School was just ending for the day when David Benke heard the pop of a firecracker. He was on parking lot duty at his Colorado middle school in February 2010 and took off toward the noise, fuming at the careless students who would do something so stupid. That's when he saw the man reloading a rifle.
Children scattered as the gunman got off another shot, sending one of Benke's students to the snowy ground. The then-57-year-old teacher bolted a few more yards, tugged at the man's clothes and wrapped his own arms and leg around the shooter. An assistant principal charged outside and grabbed the rifle by the strap. Inside the school, teachers hauled students to safety, crawled along the carpeting to check that doors were locked and, afraid to even crack an ice tray, pressed Popsicles against another student's wound.
Law enforcement was there in about 90 seconds and peeled Benke off the shooter. The teacher and others were hailed as heroes. Reporters tailed Benke's wife as she drove to meet him, and flocked to a news conference where he shared the story. He still has a grateful voicemail from the former governor and keeps education secretary Arne Duncan's number in his phone.
What he remembered, though, was the sight of a student bleeding in the snow, gasping -- a student whose pain he hadn't prevented.
"You've got to understand that right after, I thought I'd messed up," Benke said. "It wasn't until I was leaving and there was this sheriff's guy ... he said, 'You did good work today.' "