Her daughter was killed at Sandy Hook. She hopes her story helps SC schools be ready

Trump holds listening session with Florida high school shooting survivors

President Trump held a listening session with Florida high school shooting survivors and their parents on Feb. 21. Parents of Sandy Hook victims and Columbine also attended.
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President Trump held a listening session with Florida high school shooting survivors and their parents on Feb. 21. Parents of Sandy Hook victims and Columbine also attended.

Michele Gay remembers vividly the day her 7-year-old daughter and 19 other children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She recalled the events of that day, and the lessons she learned from it, during a school safety summit in Columbia.

“We learned a lot about simple things that could have changed the outcome of the day,” said Gay, whose daughter Josephine was among 26 students and teachers killed in the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Gay and the mother of another Sandy Hook victim cofounded Safe and Sound Schools, an advocacy group that encourages schools to train and prepare for emergencies such as an active-shooter incident. She was the keynote speaker Thursday at the S.C. Association of School Administrators’ school safety summit.

Walking the audience through the events of that deadly morning, Gay said the first lesson she learned was about how school districts communicate emergency notifications to families.

“I was sure it was going to be a false alarm or a misunderstanding,” Gay told The State of getting a call from the school district saying there was a shooting and that all the schools were locked down. She got in her car to go find out more, and then she saw the emergency vehicles.

“I followed them and we got to the scene, and then I could see it was very real,” she said of the mess of worried parents, first responders, news crews and students. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is good. They’re evacuating. This must be a mistake. It’s safe enough that the kids can evacuate to the fire house.’”

Parents rushing to the school can complicate matters at the scene, Gay said. The firehouse where Sandy Hook students were evacuated was not secured and quickly became inundated with more parents and news crews.

At the school, the main entrance had been locked, but the gunman shot through the glass and entered.

“Nobody could get to the PA system to communicate to the school that we were in crisis and needed to lock down,” Gay said.

As Gay watched news coverage of last week’s mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 students and faculty members dead, she said “the cocktail of grief and shock and anger and despair” came back.

“It’s paralyzing,” she said. “It’s really hard to imagine that another community is experiencing this again.”

As she hurt for the victims of the latest school shooting and their families, Gay also took note of the preparation by the school before the shooting and the actions of teachers and students as the terror unfolded, which likely prevented more deaths.

“We have to look at each scenario, each tragedy and do our very best to learn from it,” she said. “That pain and suffering will be with those families in that community forever, but we know that there’s a tremendous amount that we can learn from the students and staff to ensure something like that doesn’t happen in another community in the future.”

There’s no single solution to curbing the number and frequency of school shootings in the U.S., Gay said.

“In our society, we all really want the easy button,” she said. “We want to be able to touch one thing and say, ‘If we just fix or change this, then everything’s gonna be fine and the problem is going to be solved.’”

One measure that’s been pitched by officials across the country, including President Donald Trump, is arming teachers, which Gay said Safe and Sound Schools does not advocate.

“There are a lot of much easier, much less invasive and much less expensive solutions that we can layer our schools with so we don’t have to go to the measure of arming teachers,” Gay said. “There’s not a lot of time in the teachers’ schedule as it is. To add another job – a law enforcement job – to an already very full-time job, I think we’re going to start to see teachers leaving the profession.”

Gay now travels the country, talking with schools and groups about how to prepare for and respond to a shooting incident. She ends each presentation by talking about her daughter, whom everyone knew as “Joey.”

“She was affectionate and silly and known for her smile,” Gay said of Joey, who turned 7 just three days before the shooting. “She was also a special-needs child, so that made her especially special to us.”

Joey’s toys and belongings and pictures of her fill her family’s home, and they mention her throughout the day when they think of something she would have liked or found funny, Gay said.

“I feel more and more she is with us and a part of this mission that we’re on at Safe and Sound Schools,” she said. “I still talk to her on a regular basis. I find that very comforting. We find great comfort in imagining what life is like for her growing up in heaven.”