SAINTE-ANNE-DE-KENT, N.B. — It's lunchtime at an elementary school in the bucolic village of Sainte-Anne-de-Kent. The children squeal with delight as they play tag and hopscotch on the playground.
But the enchantment of the warm fall day last September is broken when a man driving erratically arrives at the school threatening to kill the principal and students.
The children are quickly corralled into classrooms where they remain under lockdown for 45 terrifying minutes: The youngest play hide and seek under their teacher's desk, older students pray and ask if they are going to die, and a petrified principal in a locked basement fears the worst.
On Thursday, 36-year-old Mathieu Carroll will be sentenced in a Moncton courtroom for ramming his car into the front entrance of École Calixte-F.-Savoie, an incident parents and teachers say shattered the innocence of many children at the rural school in eastern New Brunswick.
He pleaded guilty last month to multiple charges, including uttering death threats and causing more than $5,000 in damages to the school.
Lawyers offered a joint recommendation of a 12-month sentence and other conditions, but educators and parents say many of the young students will be burdened with nightmares, anxiety and stress for years to come.
"With time served, he could be out in a few months. We're all going to be looking over our shoulders," school principal Chantal DesRoches said in an interview. "It haunts me. I have flashbacks every day."
The morning of Tuesday Sept. 19, 2017, started like any other. Parents kissed their children goodbye as they dropped them off at the kindergarten to Grade 8 school on Route 505 about 60 km north of Moncton.
But then a young mother arrived crying and in distress. She asked to speak to her daughter's kindergarten teacher and the principal, and opened up about a rocky home life where she felt unsafe.
The principal called a local women's shelter and the RCMP, and the mother said she would return home and tell her boyfriend she was moving.
But DesRoches, officially in the top job for only a couple of weeks, said she had a gut feeling the situation could quickly escalate.
When the bell rang at lunchtime, she decided to go outside and help supervise the children on the playground.
"I'm usually catching up on work over lunch, but I just had this eerie feeling that something might happen," DesRoches said. "I had to protect the children."
Within minutes, she heard the squeal of tires as Carroll peeled into the school parking lot at full speed, fishtailing his car and uttering threats.
"I started rushing the kids inside and when they weren't coming fast enough I started screaming but they didn't understand," DesRoches said. "They said 'But Madame it's not 1 p.m. yet.'"
She told the teachers that she was locking down the school, and helped the children into classrooms. When she ran to the office to call 911, Carroll was standing before her, having broken a locked metal door to enter the school.
"He was livid. He said, 'You won't kick my fucking daughter out of the school,'" DesRoches said, noting that his girlfriend had given him incorrect information out of fear for her safety. "He said 'I'll fucking kill you and I'll fucking kill the students.'"
The school janitors happened to arrive early that day and a repairman — having heard her safety concerns that morning — had returned to the school after lunch to check in.
The men rushed Carroll outside.
"We had angels that day," DesRoches said. "I had three men that were there that were never there normally."
As she dialled 911 she heard a loud explosion as Carroll crashed his car through the front of the school, narrowly missing a janitor.
"I'm thinking someone who does this is certainly going to come back and kill us all," DesRoches said. "The police told me they were on their way, so we rushed to a locked basement."
At one point, when she thought he was gone, DesRoches emerged from the basement to check on the students, but a janitor yelled that he was coming back.
"I thought for sure he was coming to finish the job," she said. "We ran back downstairs again ... it seemed like forever."
Barricaded in the basement, DesRoches said time seemed to stand still as she feared the worst.
"I was locked in the basement," she said. "I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea if anyone was hurt."
Meanwhile, teachers told the youngest students that they are playing a school-wide game of hide and seek. The children were told to hide under the teachers' desks, and that the quietest students will win the contest.
But older students, aware of the imminent danger, were told to write or draw to help them stay calm. Many wrote prayers and drew crosses, a sign of the tight-knit community's Christian roots.
Teachers struggled to hide their fear from the children.
"I had a teacher that thought it was the end," DesRoches said. "She didn't think she was coming out of this alive."
Police arrived shortly after 1:30 p.m., apprehending Carroll after he tried to get away and rammed into an RCMP cruiser.
He would later undergo a 30-day psychiatric assessment at Restigouche Hospital Centre, and tests would reveal he reportedly had the methamphetamine commonly called speed in his system.
"When the policeman told me they had him, I didn't believe them," she said. "I just kept asking if they were sure, if they checked everywhere."
DesRoches lifted the lockdown, and called all the students to the gym while parents were called.
"The kids were crying, they were bawling, they were afraid," she said. "They had been hiding under their desks for 45 minutes. Some of them heard the explosion of the glass and him screaming."
While parents were told no one was hurt, many were terrified when they arrived to see the school surrounded by RCMP cruisers, yellow police tape, an ambulance and a smashed front door.
Michel Rocheleau, president of the parent council at the school and a father of two students who were there that day, said his seven-year-old son comforted another pupil during the lockdown.
"He rubbed the back of his crying friend and told the others to be silent," he told Judge Denise LeBlanc in his victim impact statement last month. "For several weeks he asked if Mathieu was still in prison."
Parents have struggled to let their children go to school, with the return to school triggering stress and anxiety in both students and parents.
"A mother told me that for two weeks, the mornings were filled with tears and stress because her daughter did not want to go to school," he said.
Many children have suffered from nightmares and insomnia, with some children unable to sleep alone, Rocheleau said.
"Our daughter has nightmares, she does not want to sleep alone, she does not want to go the bathroom alone," he said. "The feeling of losing their life was real."
Carroll apologized in a Moncton courtroom last month, taking full responsibility for his actions in a letter read by his lawyer.
— By Brett Bundale in Halifax
The Canadian Press