The subject of this story, Michele Gay, spoke to attendees of GaDOE's Georgia Education Leadership Institute on September 11, 2014.
The morning of December 14, 2012 was ordinary.
Michele Gay spent it shuffling her three daughters through their morning routine – snapping elastics around ponytails, packing lunches, neutralizing the usual sibling clashes. Her youngest, Josephine, wasn’t feeling well, so she kept her at home a little longer, kept an eye on her.
Josephine, who had just turned seven, was autistic. She didn’t speak. Once an elementary school teacher, Gay had made it her full-time job to advocate for her, to help navigate her world.
Later that morning, Josephine had lunchbox and backpack in hand, ready to head to school after all. Mother and daughter piled into the car and headed off.
As the car rolled off, most Americans had never heard of Josephine’s school – Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut. By the end of the day, that was no longer true. It may never be true again.
The phone call came later: the district superintendent’s voice announcing a lockdown at an unnamed school in the system. Gay “put the phone down and thought about Columbine,” she said, but she also thought of the infinitely less serious things that can trigger a lockdown, such as neighborhood crime.
She returned to her car and started driving through town, assuming she’d see evidence of a lockdown at the high school. There was nothing, and still nothing, and then emergency vehicles overtook her, screaming past her car.
She followed them to Sandy Hook.
At first, it seemed all was well, if tenuously so. The evacuation was going smoothly. The terror that seized Gay when the responder vehicles rushed past seemed, for a time, to have been misplaced. She thought she’d find her daughters – thought she’d find Josephine.
But there were children filing out of the school, hands facing forward and resting on each other’s shoulders. Their heads were down; first responders had sought to shield them from the horrors inside the school.
Josephine wasn’t with them. Later, Gay would realize she had seen her daughter for the last time that morning, that slowed-down morning with extra cuddles on the couch.
Not long after Gay drove to the school, swarmed on the road with emergency lights, the news bulletins started flashing. A gunman had entered Sandy Hook Elementary. Twenty students, including Josephine Gay, lost their lives. Six adults died trying to protect them.
That’s one of the things Michele Gay remembers, and she continues to tell their stories. Her audience at the Georgia Education Leadership Institute heard about the custodian who ran through the hallways, locking doors, about the teachers who shielded their students’ bodies with their own, about the
administrative staff who “ran toward the sound of chaos” after the gunman shot through the glass bordering the school’s locked front door.
“I’ll never know if they knew what they were running into,” Gay said. “But as our children’s protectors, they all ran out from the conference room in that first hallway. As soon as they stepped out of the door, they were met with his gunfire.”
It’s been almost two years since that day. Two years since response vehicles flooded the parking lot of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Two years Josephine has been gone.
She no longer needs an advocate, not in the way she did before. But Gay, tireless, has not stopped fighting for her youngest girl.
Her Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative has become a force in the push for safer schools. Gay and Alissa Parker – whose daughter, Emilie, was another of the children who died at Sandy Hook, are adamant about empowering schools and their communities to improve security. “It can’t happen here,” they tell them, is not an excuse. It is not true.
There are, Gay told her audience at the Institute, preventative measures that could have made a difference at Sandy Hook. And they could still make a difference in schools all over the country.
Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative encourages a three-pronged process of preparation for school communities. A team of community members and experts, with buy-in from first responders, should first come together to assess the measures, plans, programs, and procedures already in place, and to examine which work well and which require change and improvement.
School communities should then act, turning the information gathered and lessons learned in the assessment phase into a plan. Programs and procedures should be developed or refined; safety and security measures should be implemented, repaired, or changed.
Finally, school communities should audit, testing, checking and refining the measures, plans, programs, and procedures in place. This is, Sandy Hook Initiative organizers say, “an active phase which combines continual vigilance and awareness with formal and measured testing of the safety and security measures, plans, and procedures of your school.”
It is easy, Gay told Institute attendees, to hold in your mind an emergency plan with one step, and one step only: I’ll call 911.But the average response time to an emergency is five to six minutes.
A lot can happen in five minutes. A lot happened at Sandy Hook.
As for Gay and her family, there has been “an amazing feeling of being held up by the community” as they weather their loss.
They have worked to keep Josephine’s memory alive – building, for instance, a playground in her honor in a struggling Connecticut community. And memories of her have kept them moving forward.
Gay ended her Institute keynote with the story of Josephine’s last night. There was an orderly, ordinary family bedtime routine, but later that night – as she often did – Josephine called out for her mother.
That night, Josephine was unsettled, upset. Being nonverbal, she couldn’t easily communicate what was wrong, so Gay gave her Motrin, walked her around the room, sang to her.
None of that calmed her down. She was soothed only by words – the words that now carry her mother through a world without Josephine.
“I told her, ‘I’m really proud of you, I know how hard your life has been, and I really appreciate the fact that you never give up,’” Gay said. “‘You show up every day with a big smile on your face, and everybody loves you for it. I promise you, even though I can’t always figure out what you need or what you need to do, I promise you I won’t give up.’”
She hasn’t. She’s still fighting for her youngest child, and for children she’s never met in Georgia, and all over the United States.
As she closed her talk on Thursday, she challenged Georgia’s education leaders to make the same promise.
Visit www.safeandsoundschools.org for resources, information and ideas on securing your school