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Teacher Led Students Through Storm Despite Peril To Daughter

Suzanne Sells, a special education English teacher at Moore High School in Moore, Okla., stayed with her students through Monday's tornado though for some time her own daughter's fate was unknown.
Suzanne Sells, a special education English teacher at Moore High School in Moore, Okla., stayed with her students through Monday's tornado though for some time her own daughter's fate was unknown.

Suzanne Sells lost her house to Monday's tornado in Moore, Okla., but she's still helping other people.

Sells is a special education English teacher at Moore High School. It was spared a direct hit, but like other schools in town, it was closed Tuesday. Still, she showed up to let in a student who needed access to heart medicine that had been locked away.

She had spent hours trying to keep her students calm before, during and after the storm, but Sells is most grateful to other teachers at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where her daughter, Claire Gossett, is in the fifth grade.

"The teachers who broke protocol and did what they needed to do, those are the ones that saved my daughter's life," she says.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December happened again in Moore — teachers stepped up to try to protect pupils.

"It's sad how often this is coming up," says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "But the stories that come out of there, the acts of heroism, are just amazing."

'A Mouthful Of Mud'

News footage from helicopters shows the wreckage that was Plaza Towers Elementary. But it's still possible to make out the blue stalls in the bathrooms, where some teachers had the instinct to take kids out of the hallways; that's where emergency plans dictated they remain.

"The area they were in didn't collapse," Sells says.

As her daughter related the story, students were crammed into the bathroom, the teachers piling up on top of them, telling them to hold on. They were stern, but not panicked.

"Claire screamed and got a mouthful of mud," Sells says, "and she knew she should stop screaming."

Coping With Crisis

Teachers are trained regularly to cope with emergencies, whether it's fire drills or simulated lockdowns. Tornado drills are a monthly occurrence in towns like Moore.

"Protocols for intruders and violent situations have become much more deliberate and practiced than they were 10 to 15 years ago," says Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, which provides teacher training in about two dozen large cities.

But it's easy to forget all the training.

"In the heat of the crisis, it's hard to remember where you put that brochure," Van Roekel says.

No matter how strong the preparation for a disaster, it's the aftermath that can be hardest to deal with. For extreme cases such as Moore and Sandy Hook, the NEA sends in teams of teachers who have been through comparable events in other states.

Dramatic events like a tornado "should make people be aware that we're going to take care of their kids," says Kim Paxson, who teaches in Shawnee, Okla.

Little Losses Can Upset

Paxson used to teach at Moore High School, and she arrived at the campus on Tuesday with shampoo and other goods to help out Sells, her former colleague.

Tuesday was Claire's birthday, and she was anxious to get her hair clean for the occasion. Her hair is frizzy enough that, though she came through a tornado with only a scratch on her hand, she spent Monday night picking out pieces of glass, wood and insulation from her hair.

"I went through a tornado and my hair still looks the same," she told her mom.

Sells doesn't mind that her daughter is making jokes. She's tried to shelter Claire from information about how many of her schoolmates died. Sells wants Claire to come to terms with the tragedy, but she knows the time for counseling will come later.

"She was mostly upset that we had her party on Sunday and all her presents from her friends were at the house," Sells says.

Sources Of Support

The house is gone, so they spent the night with another teacher. A friend has an apartment the family will be able to use. Sells says that other people in town are worse off and that she's grateful to have a network of resources to draw on.

She counts her students among them. She had made the decision to watch over the children in her classroom, rather than immediately leaving to hunt for her own children.

She spent 2 1/2 hours not knowing where Claire was or whether she was all right, unable to pick up cell or text service and hearing conflicting reports in the media about damage to area schools.

When her principal finally insisted that Sells leave, her students clued into the fact that her own daughter might have been in danger.

"Immediately the kids turned to me to give me support," Sells says. "I burst into tears."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.