Sandy Hook mom gives school safety advice to suburban educators, first responders

The morning of Dec. 14, 2012, started like any other for Michele Gay and her family.

Her husband headed to work, she got two of her daughters ready for school and then took her youngest daughter, Josephine, to school a bit later because she wasn't feeling well.

"I blew her a kiss and the day began," Gay said of dropping off Josephine - who was 7 years old, autistic and nonverbal - at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that morning.

Gay had just sat down on her couch at home when the phone rang with an automated message that all Newtown schools were on lockdown.

"My mind immediately went to the high school. I thought it was like Columbine," Gay told more than 100 educators, police officers and firefighters from around the suburbs Wednesday during an event at Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights hosted by Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization and the Arlington Heights Police Department.

She jumped in the car and started driving toward the schools to see what was happening. When everything was quiet at the town's high school and intermediate school - where her oldest daughter was a student - she realized the shooting was at the elementary school.

When Gay arrived, she made eye contact with one of her daughters, whose class was evacuating, and immediately turned her focus to Josephine.

A day full of panic and confusion passed as she and her husband waited with a group of 19 other parents who would eventually learn that their children had died in the school. Six adults also were killed in the attack, including the school's principal and Josephine's classroom aide.

After the experience, Gay and another Sandy Hook mom, Alissa Parker, started talking about how the evacuation and response to the shooting was handled, and what other schools could learn from their tragedy. From those conversations, the organization Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative was born. The group encourages conversations about school security and provides free training tool kits on its website.

Gay said she, like many other parents, subscribed to the "not here" philosophy in her life before the shooting,

"These types of things can't happen here," she said. "We had not allowed our minds to even go there."

But schools and emergency responders need to have a clear plan for every little detail, just in case, she said.

Gay suggested every classroom have an emergency bag near the door to grab in case of evacuations so that important paperwork such as class lists, parent phone numbers and medical forms are not left behind. Those materials should also be accessible at an off-site location in case a teacher cannot take them at the time of evacuation, she said.

Schools also need a clear chain of command for situations such as Newtown, where the school's principal had been killed.

The scene at the firehouse where parents and children were reunited in Newtown was chaotic, Gay said, and there needed to be a more organized plan for releasing children to their parents. Some students left with family friends or with one family member without notifying another, causing some parents to fear the worst and adding more trauma to an already difficult day.

"In that moment of tragedy when you can't think or make decisions, you won't have to because everything should be ready," she said.

Amy Friel, program administrator at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211's South Academy, said her school has active shooter drills, emergency bags and plans in place, but Gay's talk made her realize there is still more to do.

"You don't know until it happens, so you just have to practice, practice, practice, and hope you never have to use it," Friel said.

"The main thing is training, and don't get complacent," said Mount Prospect Fire Chief John Malcolm. "It can happen anywhere, so you have to really be watchful of what's going on."

Gay also discussed issues such as limiting building access, improving communication between schools and first responders, and creating a recovery plan in case of tragedy.

"The key is you can never do enough," Prospect Heights Deputy Fire Chief Drew Smith said.

Talking about the tragedy has helped Gay deal with her grief, she said. "It's part of the therapy. It helps to try to find some meaning and a way to carry on for her."

Gay said she hopes to help organize a school safety summit with advocates from other shootings around the country. Safe and Sound Schools has stayed nonpartisan on issues such as gun control, choosing instead to focus on what each school can do to keep its students safe, she said.

"This is outstanding, to go through a tragedy like this and come through it and try and protect other people's kids," said West Dundee Police Sgt. Anthony Gorski.

  Michele Gay, who lost her daughter at the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, discussed school safety Wednesday with educators, police officers and firefighters from around the suburbs. Bob Chwedyk/
  Michele Gay, who lost her 7-year-old daughter in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, spoke to educators, police officers and firefighters from around the suburbs about school safety Wednesday at the Forestview Educational Center in Arlington Heights. Bob Chwedyk/
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