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Putting pain from Newtown to work

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- COURTESY OF MICHELE GAY
The Gay family, with Joey in Michele’s lap.

Joey Gay almost didn’t go to school on Dec. 14, 2012. The 7-year-old girl suffered a concussion a few weeks earlier and wasn’t feeling well.

Eventually, though, she felt up to it and her mother, Michele Gay, took her to school late. Michele dropped Joey off at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., around 9:20 a.m. About 15 minutes later, Joey became one of Adam Lanza’s 27 victims in one of the most repulsive mass shootings in American history.

Many parents of the children killed that day are quietly trying to rebuild their lives. Michele Gay is “putting our pain to work” by co-founding a nonprofit called Safe and Sound, a Sandy Hook initiative, which is dedicated to making schools safer.

Gay was in Charlotte Friday to talk to the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club about her work. Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten sat down with Gay the night before. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q. What gives you the strength to talk publicly about such a terrible tragedy?

A. After Joey died, I felt really, really strongly that we could make change and that change was necessary and I felt very empowered and emboldened by her. My faith is the foundation of all of my carrying on. Because of that faith I keep her very close and I keep her spirit with me and that’s a really critical piece.

Q. Can you take me through that day?

A. It was a really ordinary school morning. I just hustled the girls out. Joey had a special diet because she was a special needs child, she had autism, so she had a very strict diet. So I had gone through her whole breakfast and hand-made her lunch and all that busyness a normal parent goes through in the morning. She was moving slowly that morning so I sent the other two off to school. And I just held on to her for a little bit. I was keeping an eye on her and I wasn’t sure if she was up to going but she was. She grabbed her backpack and jacket. She loved school and wanted to go so I drove her in.

Q. Was there ever a chance that she wasn’t going to go to school that day?

A. Oh yeah. I had resolved that I would keep her home unless she indicated otherwise. … One of her beloved teachers was waiting for her at the door and they bounded in hand in hand together.

(At the school later) I parked and saw my second daughter evacuating with her class and I kind of breathed a sigh of relief. I figured some kid maybe brought his dad’s gun to school in his backpack. I ran over to my daughter and told her that I was just going to find her sister but everything was fine.

I still couldn’t find Joey. I sent my daughter home with a friend’s family and told her I was just going to stay and wait for Joey. And the day just dragged on and on and on and on.

(Authorities told parents 20 kids had been killed.) The room just fell apart and everyone was screaming and crying and I just got up and left. I couldn’t stay in there and I just sat in the car and thought about my daughter. I sat in the car and prayed and said, ‘Thank you for giving her to us.’

Q. As huge of a tragedy as it was, it seems like it’s already been pushed back in the nation’s mind. How does that make you feel?

A. The loss and the tragedy are so personal to me, a lot of people say, ‘Don’t you get angry that people aren’t remembering?’ I don’t need them to remember. I’d like to help them learn from what we learned, but I don’t need anybody to be experiencing pain. I don’t want anyone walking around with the kind of pain we have to carry every day.

Q. Most of the policy focus after the shooting was around gun control. Tell me why you’re focused more on the school security piece than on gun control.

A. Most prominently in my long list of reasons for that is, I feel like this is what will work. It’s time to do something different. I feel like every time there is an event like this our nation’s knee-jerk reaction has become blaming the tools of horror, whatever they happen to be. We need to look a lot deeper, we need to look at our practices and think about how we are actually empowered ourselves to prevent these types of things. There’s a wealth of knowledge about violence prevention that can be provided to school communities, to very simply and very inexpensively stop something like Sandy Hook from happening.

Q. Can you take me through some of the specifics on that, on what Safe and Sound advocates?

A. Education is front and center. We have a variety of school safety stakeholders gathering information and some very basic best practices already exist.

There are very simple things like doors that can be locked from the inside. We didn’t have that at Sandy Hook. Our teachers would have to go out in the hall, have their keys on their person, which they did not – and that goes to the training and education piece. They went to find their keys and realized they didn’t have time to find them, get to the door, go out to the hall, lock the door and pull it closed.

Simple things like locks, like alert systems, like instant communication with local police departments. Communication within the building; if I can inform the rest of the school building what’s going on, they are empowered to make a better decision for their safety.

Q. He was going to get in no matter what, right?

A. We had one line of defense, a locked front door. That’s a best practice, a single point of entry.

The locked front door is great but we had not thought through glass. I’ve learned that’s been recommended for years by school safety experts. You have this big beautiful glass entryway, you need to reinforce it some way. That can be as inexpensive as installing ballistic film on existing windows, that’s about $8-15 per square foot. That means he cannot use that window as an entry point. These are things that are available and affordable.

Q. I would think a lot of other solutions are very expensive.

A. It’s phenomenally expensive to put a school resource officer in every school. But there are ways to establish a police presence. You have police officers, when they’re sitting and waiting for a call, they can happen to be sitting and waiting in a parking lot of your school.

Q. Are there any other big pieces we haven’t talked about?

A. Communication and staff training and practice. We had a culture of safety. We had just had a lockdown drill prior to this event but we lacked significant and sufficient education in how to respond. We did not collaborate with our local law enforcement, with other security experts to think more critically about what we were doing. You have to be able to secure your classroom in a lockdown, otherwise it’s not really a lockdown. If danger does penetrate your location, you need to know what your options are. Our staff did not know that.

Q. If they had had perfect education, what else could they have done?

A. The training piece would have done quite a bit to delay him. He knew that he had a very limited amount of time and his plan was to kill as many people as he could before the police arrived and then kill himself as soon as they arrived. So anything you can do to create those time barriers. As soon as you hear a noise that doesn’t sound right, you can pull the door closed and it’s immediately locked. Do you have other ways out of the classroom? Do you have places in the room where you can be out of sight so he thinks no one is in the room? When he walked in the office, the staff was out of sight. They weren’t in complicated hiding places, just under their desks and in closets. That’s all it took. They make inexpensive tools that can help a teacher in less than a second not just to lock her door but barricade it. That would have saved lives all along the front hall.

Q. How would you label how we’re doing on this nationwide. Would you say we’re woefully unprepared?

A. Yeah, pretty much and it’s not because the information is not out there. But it’s not making its way to the people who need it, the teachers and parents and students and staff members. The superintendent needs to sit down on a regular basis with the fire chief and the police chief and the SROs and the principals and teachers and parents, and students need to have input.

Q. If there were one fix you could put in every school in the country by snapping your fingers, what would it be?

A. I’d focus on the training and education piece even over the locks and the technology because you can make a 1950s classroom safe if you’re trained to.

Q. There’s concern about turning our schools into fortresses.

A. I’m a teacher and a mom and I’m not sending my kid to prison for school.

Q. So it doesn’t have to be a fortress?

A. It can be a beautiful fortress. You apply the principals of CPTED – crime prevention through environmental design. CPTED allows you to create an environment that is warm but is as safe as technologically possible.

Q. You’re working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on these kinds of things?

A. I have interviewed with them a little bit. There’s a tremendous push here to take advantage of technology and putting a lot of money into the physical infrastructure and what I hope to do is encourage them to look at their human resources, look at the teachers and parents as resources for creating safety. They can learn simple things very inexpensively.

Q. The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre suggested having someone armed on every school campus. What do you think of that?

A. If you have a trained law enforcement officer, that can certainly enhance your school safety. We don’t advocate arming teachers or staff members. But that’s very much a community decision.

Q. But you wouldn’t want your school’s principal to be armed?

A. No, and as a teacher I would not want to be armed either. It comes down to the level of training that would be necessary to make me as a second-grade teacher as well trained as a police officer so I can change my mindset from sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor to then firing accurately under stress.

Q. If you give a gun to every second grade teacher…

A. You are going to have other safety issues. I come from a family that has sports shooters and hunters but a big part of being responsible about any kind of weapon is really thinking it through very carefully.

Q. President Obama said the day of the shootings: “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” A year and a half later, almost nothing has changed.

A. That goes back to why I chose school security over gun control as my area of advocacy. Gun control is a long process and there is a Constitution to consider. Any kind of change that’s made is not going to help my kid tomorrow when I send them to school. So that’s a very practical reason for choosing the focus on school safety, because it’s immediate.

Q. How does it make you feel that nothing has happened since Sandy Hook?

A. Disgusted. It just means we have a lot of work to do. But I think a great deal of our nation’s attention following this tragedy went to the gun situation immediately and I really feel that unfortunately it took our eyes off some practical solutions that we have right before our eyes, right in our hands right now.

Q. So do you refuse to talk about gun control at all, would you take a stand on any aspect of it?

A. No. Because it is so politically divisive and I truly believe school safety is not a political issue. There are basic principles we can all agree on. By staying true to those and focusing on it like a laser, we can completely cut through some of the political stuff that really has slowed down our country.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.
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