CHEYENNE – Josephine Gay turned 7 on Dec. 11, 2012. Her parents and two older sisters planned to celebrate her birthday that Saturday, but Josephine was killed Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
A few months after the tragedy that resulted in the deaths of 20 first-graders and six adults, Josephine’s mother, Michele Gay, founded the nonprofit organization Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative.
Alissa Parker, mother of 6-year-old Emilie Parker, who also was killed at the elementary school that day, is Gay’s co-founder. Parker has two younger daughters as well.
As a representative of Safe and Sound Schools, Gay spoke Thursday at the 2016 Wyoming School Safety Conference at Laramie County Community College.
She spoke to the group of school resource officers, administrators and teachers about her experience and various steps schools can take to increase safety for students and staff.
Gay, who now lives in Massachusetts, said she and Parker began Safe and Sound Schools just a few months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“There were a lot of conversations that I was having with first-responders, with other families who had lost a child, families who had a surviving child, different teachers, people in our community – we were all holding on to one another and trying to comprehend what had happened,” she said.
“And in those conversations, we kept coming back to, “How are we ever going to feel safe? And how are we going to be able to send our surviving kids back to school?” And that just became something that we couldn’t let go of.”
Gay said those conversations developed into a mission for Safe and Sound Schools: “To help other school communities make their schools safer and better prepared, and better able to respond and recover from any type of crisis that they might face.”
She said she travels around the country two or three times a month, speaking at events like the School Safety Conference and hosting workshops.
Thursday afternoon, she spoke about the need for community involvement in school safety and best practices for reuniting children with their parents or guardians during a crisis.
Gay told the group that every day 68 million children are separated from their parents when their parents go to work.
“The expectation of these parents is that they’re handing their children off in a very safe place, and that they will have their child at the end of the day. But the truth is that it’s our job – everybody in this room, along with a whole lot of other people – it’s our job to make sure that they are reunited at the end of the day,” Gay said.
That, unfortunately, was not her experience when she dropped off Josephine and her middle daughter, who was a fourth-grader, at Sandy Hook Elementary about five minutes before the shooting began that early morning.
Gay, a former second- and third-grade teacher, was a stay-at-home mom to her three daughters at the time.
She said it wasn’t until about 2:30 p.m. that they first heard 20 children and six adults had been killed.
“I just felt kind of detached. I felt like I was walking through – it was almost like an out-of-body experience, in a way. It was unreal is what it was. Just doing my best to try and stay focused and stay present and try and get the information I needed was my concern.
“And once we had the realization that our daughter was killed – around 4 o’clock that afternoon is when we came to that realization – it was a level of darkness and despair that I can’t put into words. It just was the darkest and most empty feeling in the entire world.”
Gay said she and her husband realized Josephine was among the children killed because at 4 p.m. they heard all the children had been reunited with their parents, but they didn’t have Josephine. They didn’t receive official confirmation of her death until about 1 a.m. Saturday, she said.
Gay said she felt the biggest difference that could have been made to prevent the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting was for someone to have taken notice of the mental help gunman Adam Lanza needed.
Gay told the School Safety Conference attendees that 28 states do not have measures in place to safeguard children in child care and in schools, though parents expect it in all schools.
“When we moved to this sweet little town, I just didn’t worry the same way that I had worried in the busy, bustling, very safety conscious metropolitan area that we had lived in. And I kind of got lulled into this small-town sense of security. And I took a lot of our safety for granted,” she said after the conference.
“One of the things I realized in retrospect is that we were not educated of what was the protocol if there was an emergency. What were we to do, where were we to get information, and what were the next steps that we were to take?”
She said it’s simple to lay out those instructions for parents ahead of time, and she said it’s always best for parents to stay at home, don’t call the school and wait for information.
If they call the school or rush down there, they can get in the way of officials doing their job and actually put the children at further risk, she said.
She additionally discussed the steps schools can take to improve their safety using a method she called Straight A Safety: Assess, Act and Audit.
And she explained that there are different ways to teach kids how to respond to emergency situations, including teaching young children to either “Get out, Lock out or Hide out.” That means they either leave the school or lock the doors and hide.
She said they can compare it to a game of Hide and Seek for the kids, making sure they understand the kids need to find a place they can escape from should the person who is “it” find them.
She told the group school safety should involve the schools, parents, police, local business owners and everyone in the community.
“School safety doesn’t just happen,” she said.