Sandy Hook survivor brings story, recommendations to Clarion

Natalie Hammond, a survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, spoke with about 100 local school officials and members of law enforcement at the Nov. 21 second Clarion University Safe School Summit.

Sandy Hook survivor brings story, recommendations to Clarion

By Randy Bartley

Staff Writer


Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, was a normal day for Natalie Hammond. She was planning for her daughter's birthday party that evening after work.

At about 9:30 a.m., her plans and her life changed forever.

Natalie was in a planning session in a room just inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when they heard a crash. Hammond said she thought it might have been a glass display case containing students' art that had fallen over.

It was not. It was 20-year-old Adam Lanza shooting his way through a glass partition at the entry to the school.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach led the way into the hallway followed by Hammond.

Lanza killed both Hochsprung and Sherlach. Hammond was hit first in the leg and then sustained another gunshot wound.

"I was only a second behind them," she said Nov. 21 at the second Clarion University Safe School Summit.

She said she "played dead" until Lanza moved past her. She said she lay in the hallway until she realized she was a target. She crawled back to the conference room and pressed her body against the door to keep it closed.

The eight other teachers in the conference room had taken shelter behind desks.

That was when Hammond realized a flaw in their safe haven. The doors in the school could only be locked from the outside and the doors had large windows in them.

Hammond said she lay in the room for what seemed like hours but was only a few minutes.

She said a friend who was a police officer found her but could not help because the building had not been cleared.

"He told me later that leaving me was the hardest thing he had ever done," she said. "To me his words, ‘I'll be right back' was the best thing I had ever heard.

"You need to be aware of other people's perspective."

Hammond said many of the school staff didn't know the police officers.

"They were men with guns going down our hallways," she said.

Hammond suggested the school meet with law enforcement and government officials on a regular basis to form a plan.

Hammond showed a slide of the exterior of the school with a blue chair sitting next to the curb.

"That is my chair. The police officers rolled me out on it," she said.

She said that no ambulance was available so she was loaded into the front seat of a police car.

"I brushed his computer with my left arm and apologized to the officer for getting it dirty," she said.

Hammond saw the driveway to the school choked with vehicles.

"These were parents who had heard about the shooting and had come to the school to get their children," she said. "We had an evacuation plan but not a reunification plan.

"We had made plans but two of our leaders were out of action and I was the third. When you make your plans you need to make different people in charge and alter your drill because no two emergencies are the same."

Hammond said she was placed in the front of an ambulance with a young boy in the back.

"I kept telling him I was there for him," she said. "He didn't make it."

Hammond said the hospital had heightened security.

"There were snipers on the roof and armed security at the entrance," she said. "They didn't know what was happening."

What had happened was one of the worst school shootings in the nation's history.

School began at Sandy Hook at 9:30 a.m. and the first call to the Newtown police arrived at 9:35 a.m.

The police arrived at 9:39 a.m. and five minutes later in was all over.

Lanza committed suicide but before he took his own life he had murdered 20 children and six adults.

"I kept thinking it can't happen here but then I realized it did happen here," Hammond said. "We need to get past the idea that it will never happen here. We need to change that mindset.

"I am a member of a club no one wants to belong to."

That club is composed of survivors from other mass shootings or the families of the victims.

Hammond said she had to find a purpose in her life.

Her purpose is "Safe and Sound Schools."

Hammond explained, "We need to re-think school safety. It is not just hardening the building."

Hammond said the elements that need to be considered include mental and behavioral health, health and wellness, the physical environment, the culture and climate of the community, school law policy and operations and emergency management.

Hammond urged the school officials not to just development a plan A and B but a plan C, D and E.

"You need to be certain everyone knows the plan," she said. "The substitute teachers, the janitors, everyone needs to know the plan. You also need to have regular conversations with your community resources.

"You need to find out what works for you."

Hammond taught third-grade at Sandy Hook for 13 years before becoming the lead teacher in the building.

She now serves as principal in a preK-4 elementary school in Connecticut.