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Mother of Sandy Hook Victim Aims to Boost School Safety

Reading Eagle, Pa.

Watching from her car as her daughter Josephine, just three days past her seventh birthday, was hustled by staff members into school that Friday morning, Michele Gay couldn't help but smile about the little girl's excitement.

"She was practically skipping," Gay recalled.

Gay hadn't wanted to let her daughter go to school that day. Just two weeks before, she had fallen on the playground and suffered a concussion.

Her first day back in class had been Monday, and Josephine, a nonverbal, autistic child, had a rough week. She was worn out, her mother said, and needed a break.

But that morning, Gay's efforts to distract Josephine with extra cartoons was thwarted. The little girl realized it was time for school, grabbed her backpack and headed for her mother's car.

The pair arrived at 9:25 a.m., after Sandy Hook Elementary School's 9 a.m. starting time.

Ten minutes later, as Gay headed home for breakfast, a 20-year-old man who was "deeply, deeply mentally disturbed" would enter the school and open fire. In all, he would kill 20 children and six adults before taking his own life on Dec. 14, 2012.

One of those children, struck down while hiding with her first-grade classmates in a tiny bathroom, was Josephine.

It was a moment that changed Gay's life, that forever altered her family, the school and the Newtown, Conn., community.

Monday morning, Gay shared her story with about 250 people gathered inside the auditorium at the Reading Hospital's School of Health Sciences as part of the Reading/Berks School Nurses, Counselors and Psychologists Annual Conference.

Gay, who with another mother of a Sandy Hook victim founded the nonprofit group Safe and Sound Schools, hopes her experience will help others rethink how we move from tragedy to beyond tragedy. What happened to her daughter, to her daughter's classmates and teachers and administrators, she said, can provide lessons to prevent the same from happening elsewhere.

Gay's family had followed a job offer for her husband, Bob, to Newtown.

They quickly fell in love with the town, with its quaint look, friendly people and "Mayberry feel." But another job offer for her husband was taking them away, a bit farther north to Massachusetts.

By that December in 2012, the house had been sold, and her husband was working, spending Monday through Friday, in Massachusetts. The family had about three weeks until they turned in the keys to their home and joined him.

Josephine and her three sisters were excited that Friday. Along with Christmas quickly approaching, their dad was coming home that evening and there were plans for Josephine's birthday party that weekend.

The eldest, Sophie, had headed off to the intermediate school with ease. Marie, a fourth-grader, had hurried out the door, brimming with joy because as a member of the oldest grade at Sandy Hook she got to sit on the back of the school bus, enjoying all the shenanigans that entails.

Gay would take Josephine to join Marie at Sandy Hook a short time later.

With all three of her girls at school, Gay was understandably a bit concerned when her breakfast and the cartoons that were still on the television were interrupted by a call from the school district. She figured at first it was nothing, that one of the girls had forgotten her lunch or glasses.

But what she heard was a recorded message from the superintendent. It said all the schools in the district were on lockdown because there had been a shooting.

That was it. No details, no instructions, no reassurances, no plans for updates.

"I remember taking a deep breath and holding it in," Gay said. "I don't remember letting it out."

Gay hopped in her car, planning to drive a loop around Newtown that would bring her past each of her daughters' schools. As she was flying down the town's country roads, she was overtaken by a seemingly endless string of emergency vehicles.

She eventually found out where they were headed. She made it as far as the firehouse at the entrance to the long lane that leads to Sandy Hook before she was forced to park and make her way by foot.

After arriving, Gay didn't know what to do.

There was no one there directing parents, no one organizing the frantic people who arrived one after the other.

"I'm seeing a very active scene, a very live scene," she said.

Gay spotted lines of students evacuating to the firehouse. It gave her a moment of ease, as she figured the situation was at least safe enough now that kids were being moved.

She spotted her middle daughter, Marie, in one of the lines and made a beeline for her.

"I don't remember how many people I knocked over to get to her," she said.

Gay said she was pleased with how the evacuation was handled, saying the children she saw seemed calm. The drills the school had done—they'd had one just a week-and-a-half earlier—seemed to be paying off.

But those evacuating students didn't include Josephine. So Gay walked back and forth from the firehouse to the school, over and over again, searching and questioning every adult she came across.

It wasn't until later, with parents gathered inside the firehouse, that the horrible reality of the situation was revealed. An official announced that 20 kids and six adults had been killed, and the room crumbled, Gay said.

The reason Gay relives the worst day of her life over and over, that she travels from place to place speaking about that painful day, is because of a promise she had made to Josephine.

The night before she died, Josephine couldn't sleep. Gay read her extra stories in bed, said extra bedtime prayers with her, but couldn't get her daughter settled.

Eventually, she told Josephine that she would spend the night with her. She said they would try to figure out what was going on the next day, that she wouldn't give up.

Gay never got the chance to keep that promise to Josephine. But she plans to keep it all the same.

She said it's her mission now to never give up the fight to make schools safer. To keep other children from facing what her daughter did.

"Our children and teachers, the ones who died and the ones who survived, have left you and I in a very powerful position," she said.

For Gay, that means sharing her experience. It means telling others about the things she learned on the fly, that she and the Sandy Hook community dealt with during the whirlwind.

There were the logistical things, like the fact that the teachers with classrooms in the hallway the shooter walked down weren't able to lock their doors.

"There's a ton of little stuff that could have made a difference that day," she said, adding that being able to lock and barricade classroom doors could have saved the lives of 20 children. "We would have mitigated the tragedy."

Or that the locked exterior doors, buzzer system for entry and visitor sign-in book and badges meant nothing to the shooter, as he simply fired eight rounds into a window and stepped over the shards of glass and through the hole he had made.

"They're for people like you and me," she said of the security measures. "Just putting one of those layers in place doesn't mean we have complete safety coverage."

There was also the matter of how parents were informed of the shooting and how survivors were reunited with their families. Gay said the school administrators who would typically handle that kind of thing were killed, injured or were dealing with emergency responders at the scene.

There was no "B" team, she said, which meant there was no accounting of which students had been evacuated and to whom they had been released.

Gay also spoke about the aftermath of the mass shooting, about having to deal with all the things you don't realize have to be dealt with. Like the mountains of donations that poured in, or what to do with the memorials that popped up on every corner in town.

They're things that need to be planned for, but things almost nobody thinks to create a plan for.

Gay said that's the key, the message she hopes those who listen to her take away. That training and planning can make all the difference.

"If you're the one facing tragedy at your feet, all you have is your training," she said. "We're all first responders. You're it until the cavalry arrives."

And while it's great for schools to have safety drills, she said, they need to include everyone. The police, firefighters, ambulance crews and even mental health professionals, all need to be on the same page.

Gay spoke for almost 90 minutes Monday morning. Later in the day, she took part in a panel discussion answering questions and sharing even more about her experience and her advice on what schools can do to make sure they have everything they need to be safe places.

It's a message she has to share. She made a promise to a special little girl, one with lots of challenges who, in her seven years and three days on earth, never quit.

And neither will her mom.

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