CRIME

Newtown School Police: 'It Was So Real It Didn't Seem Real'

07/16/2013 07:30 am ET | Updated Jul 16, 2013

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It happened seven months ago Sunday, but remembering details of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting still brings tears to the eyes of Lenny Penna.

"I'm hoping that, you know, it's been seven months, emotions won't set in," Penna said. "But it is what it is."

Penna, a member of the police department in Newtown, Conn., and his colleague Jason Flynn, spoke to an audience of about 800 school resource officers at the National Association for School Resource Officers conference Monday. School resource officers are police specifically trained for working as law enforcement agents and educators in schools. Before the Sandy Hook massacre, Newtown had two -- Flynn and Penna.

Their stories outlined the events of the day in great detail, from start to finish. They also touched on how school-based police officers can be marginalized from the rest of the force. They spoke a week after reports surfaced that the Newtown police response to the massacre is under investigation by the Connecticut State Police. They did not mention the shooter's name once.

"This individual woke up at his home, took a rifle that was inside the home and killed his mother who was sleeping in her bed," Penna said. "He had taken her car and loaded up multiple weapons and drove to the school."

Flynn and Penna then played the 10-minute audio clip of the police dispatch from 9:36 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2012, before the audience of school personnel. "Caller's indicating she thinks someone's shooting in the building," the staticky clip starts. Throughout, the two Newtown officers stood in silence, bowing their heads, biting their lips.

On Dec. 14, Penna was stationed in Newtown's middle school, where he usually works. As soon as he got the call, he drove in his unmarked car to Sandy Hook. He assumed there were at least two shooters. When he arrived in the parking lot, the first thing he saw was a black car with two black jackets on the ground besides it. He assumed it was the two shooters. "When I saw it, the passenger door was open," he said. "You could tell, it was out of place."

He pulled up with his team to open a door, which led to the boiler room. Penna was with the lieutenant and a sergeant, and since Penna had the rifle, they had him enter first. He didn't know whether he would make it out. "We heard there was a shooting, but I didn't think it was a school shooting, where kids were being killed," he said. "You don't think like that." He was suddenly hit with a strong waft of the odor of gun powder, and reached the main vestibule. He saw two lifeless bodies and "the biggest pool of blood that I've ever seen," he said. For a split-second, he thought it was a mock scene, a training drill, because it was "so real it didn't seem real."

He then entered the second classroom that had been hit. First, he saw a "live, first-grade girl covered in blood." She told him, "I'm scared and I wanna go home." Behind her, everyone in the classroom was dead. Penna's mind flashed to his daughters, one of whom was the same age as the living girl. He had her stay in the classroom to keep her from harm's way.

He then entered into the first classroom and heard a shot. "My first thought was one of our guys shot him," he said. So he ran back, grabbed the girl, and took her out -- before learning that the shooter had shot himself.

Penna returned to the suspicious car and found a shotgun in the back seat. He threw it in the trunk and locked it. He noticed bullet holes on other cars.

Flynn, assigned to Newtown's public high school, had started his day discussing a sexual assault case with the assistant principal and interviewing students. When he first got the call, he tried phoning Penna, but he didn't answer. No one picked up in the police department. Maybe the phone is broken, he thought. At one point, Flynn ran into Penna, who had already been inside the elementary school. Penna looked at him and said, "It's not good."

A lieutenant told Flynn, "I think it's a high school student." Flynn's heart stopped. "Someone says one of your students just killed 26 people," he said. "That's a heavy burden. How can that be?" Flynn went in to try to identify the person. He didn't recognize the shooter, because he wasn't a student. "Unfortunately, it's a face I'll never forget," he said. "It's etched in my mind, unfortunately."

After the shooting, Flynn and Penna were tasked with drawing up the "list of unaccounted" people, creating folders for each missing person. When Penna turned on his computer to start the job, he opened the MSN homepage and saw the headline, "Newtown Shooting, 18 Dead." That's when it hit him. "I can't believe that this happened," he said he thought. The officers organized parents in the firehouse and reunited the remaining families.

The killings, Penna and Flynn said, made the Newtown Police Department respect school resource officers. Before that, they felt isolated, because they usually worked out of the schools, and not the police headquarters "We're viewed as not essential," Flynn said. He said they were regularly tasked with things like bringing a car down the highway. "We come in, we go to the schools, it's like nobody ever saw us," he said.

After the shooting, Penna said, Newtown added police to their schools. Penna and Flynn started work earlier to better correspond with the schools' hours. They saw a therapist to help them heal. "We're guys, we're cops, we don't like to talk about our feelings," Flynn said. "It's real important that you go get help." A colleague of theirs broke down one day because of what he'd seen.

Newtown wants to expand its school resource officers, but doesn't have enough manpower to put one in each school. "It's very political," Penna said. "It's costly, they have to work out all the financial issues."

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