By D. Allan Kerr
Dave Sanders, Liviu Librescu and Victoria Soto are names we should all know. They should at least be as famous as Sully Sullenberger, the airline pilot who became a folk hero for safely landing a commercial plane in the Hudson River.
All three were teachers killed in the battleground of the American classroom. The recent shooting in Parkland, Florida, has reignited the gun debate and sparked idiotic statements from politicians who claim they would have charged into the carnage even without a weapon. But teachers are the ones truly serving in the front lines of this epidemic. They’re often the last line of defense for our kids – we should remember that.
As it so happens, these three in particular are uncannily representative of American educators – a 27-year-old first grade teacher (Soto), a 47-year-old high school teacher and coach (Sanders), and a 76-year-old college professor and Romanian immigrant (Librescu). They also personify the difference between heroes and hero-wannabes.
Sanders taught business and computer classes at Columbine High School in Colorado, and coached the girls’ varsity basketball and softball teams. Having lost his own father at age three, he also served as something of a father figure to the kids of Columbine High School, according to several of his students and athletes.
When heavily armed students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold started shooting schoolmates the morning of April 20, 1999, some initially thought it was some kind of twisted prank. But Sanders understood what was happening.
He immediately began evacuating students from the school cafeteria, jumping up on a table and directing them to exits away from the shooters. By some accounts, he helped hundreds of kids escape. Instead of following them out, however, Sanders then ran upstairs and headed down a hallway to alert students in other classrooms.
There he encountered at least one of the teen gunmen, and was shot in the back and neck. He managed to crawl into a science room where about 30 students were holed up. They administered aid to Sanders and tried to stop the bleeding. They put up in the window a banner saying “1 bleeding to death” and were told by 911 dispatchers help was on the way.
But by the time paramedics arrived, it was too late. By some accounts Sanders bled out for about three hours because responders weren’t allowed to enter the building, even after Harris and Klebold had already killed themselves.
The beloved coach left behind his wife, four children, and five great-grandchildren. He was posthumously awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2000 for his courage.
Sanders was the only teacher killed during the Columbine High massacre, along with 12 students.
Librescu survived the Holocaust and World War II in Europe as a child, including time in a Nazi labor camp. He grew up to become a renowned engineer and research scientist. He relocated to Israel after refusing to pledge allegiance to Romania’s Communist Party and then came to the United States in the mid-1980s.
Highly regarded in academic circles, Librescu was teaching class as a professor of engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on April 16, 2007. That’s the morning Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, initiated the worst school shooting in American history.
According to Librescu’s students, when Cho tried to enter Room 204 the little 76-year-old professor somehow managed to hold the door shut with his body while yelling for his students to jump out the windows. He kept the assailant out long enough for most of his students to escape, but was shot five times, once in the head.
Librescu managed to protect about 20 kids (media reports vary as to how many were in the classroom at the time) while one was killed. The students later sent messages to the professor’s family, saying he had saved their lives.
He was buried in Israel, where his widow and two sons were presented with the Order of the Star of Romania medal for his heroism. President George W. Bush also honored the Holocaust survivor.
Cho murdered 32 students and teachers before shooting himself in the head. At the time, the Virginia Tech attack was the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history.
Soto grew up in Stratford, Connecticut, before landing a teaching position at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown. The daughter of a Puerto Rican immigrant, she had earned degrees in both history and education at Eastern Connecticut State University and graduated with high honors. She was working toward her master’s degree.
On the morning of December 14, 2012, when deranged shooter Adam Lanza blasted his way into the school, Soto hid her students in closets, cabinets and the bathroom. Media reports vary as to exactly what happened in Soto’s classroom when Lanza entered, but we know when he started shooting Soto’s first-graders she threw herself directly into the line of fire.
Eleven of the students in her classroom that day survived the attack.
She wasn’t the only hero of the Sandy Hook massacre, or even the only hero in her classroom. Her teaching assistant, Ann Marie Murphy, was found cradling the body of Dylan Hockley, the special-needs student she was helping, after she tried to shield him from the bullets with her body. Both were killed.
Sandy Hook’s principal, Dawn Hochsprung, was gunned down when she literally charged the madman invading her school. Ultimately, 20 kids were murdered at Sandy Hook, along with six educators. The staffers were all posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for giving their lives to try to save their kids.
During Soto’s funeral service, legendary singer Paul Simon sang “Sounds of Silence.” And to this day a tree in our yard features 26 angels bearing the names of those slaughtered at the school, which my wife Nicole put up in the days following the slaughter to make sure they aren’t forgotten.
There were many heroes in each of these instances, and we’ve been learning of new heroes in the Parkland attack, but these three seem particularly representative. While most grownups recognize genuine courage, it’s insulting and demeaning when idiots boast about what THEY would have done in such circumstances.
Some might argue these stories would have turned out differently if these individuals had been armed as well. That’s possible, but it’s also possible others might have been killed in the crossfire of a running gun battle. But that’s not the point of today’s piece.
I wouldn’t presume to ask anyone to step between my kids and a bullet, but of course I hope someone will if the occasion ever presents itself. And I don’t propose we include this as part of the job description for our teachers.
But without embarrassing them by providing names, I can think of teachers here in my town of Kittery who I suspect would take extraordinary measures to protect their children. Our children. I believe most of you know some as well.
Here’s hoping they all get the support system they need, at both the local and federal levels, to provide a safe learning environment for future generations.
D. Allan Kerr continues to be amazed by school teachers on a weekly basis.
(March 3, 2018)