Josephine Gay was an affectionate, generous, and mischievous seven-year-old who was known for her silly smile. She loved school, her friends, and her teachers. On December 14, 2012, Josephine died when a shooter entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. She was one of 20 children who lost their lives that day, along with six adult staff members.
Josephine’s mother, Michele Gay, turned her grief into action by founding Safe and Sound Schools, along with Sandy Hook parent Alissa Parker who lost her daughter, Emilie. Safe and Sound Schools’ mission is to advocate for improved school security and safety in order to protect children and teachers.
“For me, the first realization (after the tragedy) was that an intruder had been able to get into our building,” says Gay, a former teacher. “It seemed to be something that we could control. It is not acceptable, and of course, we can do better.”
Gay and Parker began meeting with professionals in different fields and researching school safety protocol. “There is a great deal of information out there, but it doesn’t always make its way to busy school communities,” Gay says. “I started applying my teacher perspective and tried to find ways to boil down the information for busy moms, teachers, and community members so they are able to be more part of the process.”
Today, Safe and Sound Schools offers free training, downloadable toolkits, and other resources for schools to change and improve safety. Its methods are now used in 47 states including Colorado.
Guy Grace, security and safety director for Littleton Public Schools, has applied Safe and Sound’s training practices to the schools in his district. Specifically, he appreciated learning how to teach very young children about school safety.
“With Pre-K students, their level of understanding is going to be very different, and we were taught how to educate them,” Grace says. “We learned how to empower kids to live in a society and have less fear, and then give them some skills if something does happen,” he adds. “Safe and Sound Schools isn’t out there spreading fear and panic; they are empowering us to go forward.”
In the five years since the Sandy Hook tragedy, Gay has noticed that the level of conversations surrounding school safety has increased. “The conversations are happening now—at the bus stops and at PTA meetings,” Gay says. “Problems are being uncovered, people are asking the tough questions, and more and more people are wanting to become involved.”
How Families Can Help
- Start a chapter of the Safe and Sound Youth Council at your school. The new program launched last fall. Download the program guidelines from the website and improve school safety at your school through service projects, peer mentoring, and other methods.
- Learn about school safety. “Our website is a great place to start, and we’ve spent a lot of time making all the concepts accessible to everyone so they can learn the basics,” says Gay. “Ask questions, and follow the conversations.”
- “Get to know your kids and know who their friends are,” says Grace. In his 30 years working in security for public schools, he’s seen an increase in mental health issues, which affects school safety, he says. “Suicide is just as impactful as an active shooter event,” Grace says. “Get involved in the community, and encourage your child to talk.”