Wellesley Action Alliance on March 21 at the Wellesley Free Library welcomed Michele Gay, the mother of a Sandy Hook Elementary School student who was among the 20 children and six adults killed on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The gunman killed himself as first responders arrived on the scene. Before the massacre at the school, he fatally shot his mother in their home. Gay, the Co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools, has made it her life’s work to “make our schools safer for our children, teachers, administrators, and staff, through education, active awareness, and collaboration.” She travels across the country sharing her message of inspiration, recovery, and school safety education and advocacy.
Joelle Reidy, co-founder of Wellesley Action Alliance, introduced Gay to the crowd of about 150 noting that, “The purpose of the Wellesley Action Alliance is to create a safer community through awareness and education.”
A heartbreaking story
And then Gay told the heartbreaking story, step-by-step, of what happened on the day that her youngest daughter Josephine Grace, known to her family and friends as Joey, was murdered by a local 20-year old who was disturbed, armed, and dangerous. She says she and her husband Bob were attracted to Newtown because they wanted to provide the kind of small-town experience for their children that the town of 27,000 offered. “I had chosen this town and this elementary school…it just had a warmth about it,” she said. Joey “…had real friends at this school which is an exceptional situation for a non-verbal autistic child.”
But after a typical enough morning getting Joey and her two older girls off to school that day, a Robocall delivered the chilling news that all of the Newtown schools were in lockdown due to a shooting. No information about which school. Nothing about what to do. After a phone calls to the schools went unanswered Gay, and seemingly every other parent in Newtown, hopped into her car to get information. “It was way scary. There were lots of frantic people on the road.”
She passed the middle school. Ok, there are no emergency vehicles there. Everything looked calm. She knew her oldest daughter was fine. When she drove by the high school, same story. There were about a half dozen other schools in town, which could be the site of a shooting? Then her car was overtaken by emergency vehicles. “So I followed them,” she said. Right to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where her two younger daughters were enrolled.
When I got there, “I’m seeing a really hectic scene,” Gay said. “This doesn’t look like a false alarm or an accident on the playground. It’s chaotic. First responders were stopping me from going up the school drive, and I’m not getting a lot of information. I saw my 4th grade daughter. Now I know that two of my babies are safe. I saw my 4th grade daughter’s class evacuating.”
I remember saying, “Thank God we’ve practiced this.” The Newtown schools had been participating in active shooter drills for about six years before the shooting, and Gay credits this as one of the things she feels saved lives that day.
“The kids were pretty calm. The teachers were pretty calm, and parents were running up and finding their kids and taking them. I started having an out of body experience. My response was to become a little like a robot.”
There were heroes that day
The gunman, Gay later learned, accessed the school by firing on the floor-to-ceiling windows in the foyer. When they collapsed in a waterfall of shards he entered the school. The custodian saw what was happening, smelled the gunpowder and started running through the halls yelling “lockdown.” Gay credits his actions with potentially saving hundreds of lives.
The gunman shot The Mama Bears, what Gay called three of the administrators who were always everywhere in the school, visible and present. He then passed the first-grade classroom. That teacher and those students survived. But when he got to the next two classrooms, he killed 20 six-and-seven year olds and four more educators.
The official Connecticut State’s Attorney Report on the shootings says that the gunman “…exclusively used a Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S semiautomatic rifle during the massacre at the school, which was over less than 11 minutes after it began. He was also found to be carrying two handguns on his person…and a semiautomatic Saiga shotgun was found in the trunk of the car he drove to the school. ” The weapons found at the scene had been legally purchased by his mother.
“Then the first responders came, Gay said. “Their arrival on the scene is what I think ended his massacre. And he shot himself” in the head with a Glock 20 pistol chambered for 10mm cartridges.
Gay said that she wanted us to know what really happened, not to break attendees hearts, but to make them realize that “We were left with the power to make sure this never happens again.”
Have hope, but take action
And then, as everyone was dabbing their eyes and sighing in despair, she got to The List, what she says are the the ways in which everyone can rethink school safety:
1.We default to our training.
2. Simple measures save lives. Doors that can be locked from the inside can slow down or stop a shooter.
3. We are all first responders.
4. Information is power.
5. A culture of safety in every school is essential.
6. Don’t believe in “not here.”
7. Learn. Prepare. Practice. Repeat
8. Find help now from the mental health support network of social workers and school psychologists.
9. Ask how we can help the families affected by school violence.
10. Rely on faith, family, and friends.
Gay said that as her family picked up the pieces, “My kids really wanted to go back and reclaim their lives. School was their everything.” And as she worked toward restoring a sense of safety in their lives, that was the beginning of Safe and Sound Schools. Gay’s family no longer lives in Newtown. In fact, at the time of the shooting they were in the process of moving to a town in Massachusetts, not so far from Wellesley. It is there that her family continues the ongoing process of not just surviving, but of finding a different way to thrive, one in which the memory of their Joey is honored.
Wellesley’s planning process
Here in town as Wellesley continues to move additional safety measures forward, the Wellesley School Committee gave a security update on Tuesday, March 21 that covered a security template for all schools. The goals are for all of Wellesley’s schools to have: access control features such as Artificial Intelligence phones and Proximity Cards (contactless card technologies for building access; video cameras; updated school crisis plans and bomb threat protocols; staff training on building security features; and school-based training for staff and students.
The School Committee’s next meeting is Wednesday, March 28, 6:30pm at Town Hall.
This Connecticut townie’s story
Since you’ve made it this far, hang with me for a bit and hear my Sandy Hook story. It’s a story of a Hamden, Connecticut townie (that’s me, and the use of the present tense is intentional — once a Hamden townie, always a Hamden townie) who stumbled across a small way to help out when neighbors were suffering.
Sandy Hook is one of those I Remember Where I Was kind of days for me. I was on my way to the New Haven area to visit family. My kids had been dropped off at school and I set out feeling, I’ll admit it, a little free on that open expanse of the Mass Pike, westbound. The radio was tuned into what I figured would be the regular routine — NPR for the first hour of the drive, classic rock for the rest of the way. Classic rock stations are very big once you cross the border into Connecticut.
Once I got to that halfway point, I never did end up changing over to classic rock. Because at around 9:30am, the reports started coming through as the Newtown events started to unfold. Once in Hamden, I opened the front door to CNN on the television and crying family members in the living room. No one in my family had a personal connection to Newtown, but there was no doubt that this was personal.
Like a lot of people, I asked, “What can I do?”
Back in Connecticut a couple of months later, during Wellesley’s March school vacation week, I noticed that one of the the addresses listed as a reputable place for sending donations was in Hamden. At that time donations of paper cut-outs of snowflakes for Sandy Hook were being solicited. Newtown had decided to raze the old school and a request was made: “Snowflakes for Sandy Hook: Please help the students of Sandy Hook have a winter wonderland at their new school! Get Creative!! No two snowflakes are alike. Make and send snowflakes to the Connecticut Parent Teacher School Association.” A Hamden industrial park address was listed. Hmm, I thought. They’re going to need people to open up those envelopes and carefully lay the snowflakes in a pile so they don’t get ripped, I thought.
More Mama Bears
I looked up the Connecticut Parent Teacher School Association’s number and gave a call. The woman who answered the phone, no slouch in the Mama Bear department herself, was wary. Why was I calling? What did I want? I told her who I was, trotted out my Hamden credentials (Hamden High School, Class of 1987…Go Dragons), and said I’d like to help open boxes and sort mail. “How did you know there would be boxes and mail?” she asked. Oh honey, I just knew.
But I didn’t know the half of it.
I brought my Hamden BFF, our kids, and an exchange student from Norway, and we went down there to lend a hand. It looked something like that scene in Miracle on 34th Street, the one where the post office employees deliver bags upon bags of mail to the judge tasked with deciding whether Santa Claus is real or not, only multiplied by 100.
There were bundles of mail in that corner. Boxes were piled everywhere. And a staff of two women with the organization skills of General Patton were there to give us our marching orders. The teens were sent to pick things up and put them down, and to flatten boxes, tie them with twine and bring them to the dumpster area. These boxes had been full of school supplies, art supplies, toys, and thousands of paper snowflakes. There looked to be more snowflakes than an actual blizzard could supply. All of this was being sorted and organized in a few areas.
My bestie and I were sent to a back office to open letters. We were to put the envelopes in a recycling bin, the letters in one box, and the checks and cash in another box. “Checks and cash?” I asked. “Oh yeah, lots of both,” she said. Children from all over the country were including ones, fives, and tens from their allowances and piggy banks so that the kids from Sandy Hook could get a new school and everything they needed to fill it.
There was letter after letter from kids who felt strongly that the Sandy Hook kids couldn’t go back to their old school. Other letters offered friendship to the Sandy Hook students, since their friends had died. Some letter-writers hoped that their new teachers would be just as nice as the teachers they had lost.
Although onsite all of the letters, cash, and items opened and sorted were being treated like precious artifacts, I don’t know what happened to everything that was sent to that office in Hamden. The Hartford Courant reported in 2014 that the distribution of federal donations plus donations that poured in worldwide and that were collected by the United Way of Western Connecticut had caused hard feelings in Newtown. One selectwoman suggested that the state’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission should look at the strategy used in Boston following the marathon bombing to create one fund through which donations were collected and distributed. According to that story, the distribution of donations made to Newton was so problematic that Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra said it likely left “a permanent fracture in the community.”
As if that community needed any more “permanent fractures.”
As if any of our communities can every fully heal from such wounds.
To get involved with the Wellesley Action Alliance, check out their Facebook page.