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How a Sandy Hook mom thinks Indiana schools can keep students safe

Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools, pictured in 2019.
Photo courtesy of Safe and Sound Schools
Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools, pictured in 2019.

The massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, is the second deadliest K-12 school shooting on record. The most deadly happened at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.

Michele Gay’s daughter, Josephine Grace, was one of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook. Gay went on to co-foundSafe and Sound Schools. It’s a school safety nonprofit that has provided training to law enforcement officers, educators and others in Indiana.

In response to shootings, Indiana state leaders have focused on providingmillions of dollars to local schoolsfor security.

WFYI’s Lee V. Gaines spoke with Gay about her reaction to the school shooting in Uvalde, and what schools can do to keep students safe.

Lee V. Gaines, WFYI: Michelle, I know you lost your daughter Josephine Grace in the Sandy Hook school shooting, and you've dedicated your life since to preventing these kinds of tragedies from happening in other communities. Please only share what you feel comfortable sharing. But what is going through your mind as a parent and as an advocate right now?

Michele Gay:It's more that it's going through my heart right now, to watch this community. It almost feels like going back in time experiencing exactly what we experienced in the same sequence, and in just haunting similarity. You know, it knocks you on your heels, it just sets you back for sure. And it's not just me, right? I feel like across the country and across the world, we are all just collectively mourning with the community.

Gaines: So as a school safety specialist, what can schools in Indiana do right now to prevent a mass shooting from happening on their campuses?

Gay:I think in this moment, it's helpful to look at some basics. Let's tighten up our existing measures to protect the envelope of the school, right, during school hours when our precious people are in the building. What are we doing to make sure that only the right people are able to get on our campuses and into our buildings? As well as just attending to the emotional needs that everyone has right now, particularly on the heels of this horrific tragedy.

Offering check ins to students. Making sure that every student has at least one trusted adult that they can come to. And also just reminding the school community that everybody plays a role in keeping this place safe. And that if something doesn't look right, or feel right, or smell right or sound right, you know, it's incumbent upon us, all of us, to speak up to bring it forward so that we can do something about it.

Gaines: And what's your message to parents who are understandably fearful to send their kids to school?

Gay:So I'm just going to tell you what I did. When my two daughters, they had both just lost their little sister in the most horrific way, and I was pretty sure that they would not want to go back to school. And at that moment, I was OK with that. But they came to me and said that they wanted to go back to school and they wanted to know when they could go back to school. I said, "OK, we're going to figure it out. I see how important this is."

Our kids need their peers, they need their community, they need their teachers. These are very valuable relationships. So what I did was I reached out for help. I wasn't ready. I was scared. I was nervous. I was heartbroken. So I reached out to school leadership and I said that: "Help me. Help me make this happen. Help helped me feel OK."

It is not only appropriate, I think it would be welcome, if parents came forward with that approach and just said, "I want school for my kids. I don't want them to lose out on this amazing experience that education can be. So help me, you know? Help me make it OK. Help me to reassure my kids. Help me have the words."

And I think being honest with our kids. We don't have all the answers and we do not live in a perfectly safe world by any means. But what I said to my girls, is that we're not going to give up our way of life because of the evil actions of one person. We are going to continue. We're going to do the work that we need to together to keep each other safe and support one another. We're going to continue with our lives as best we can.

Contact WFYI education reporter Lee V. Gaines at Follow on Twitter: @LeeVGaines.

Copyright 2022 WFYI Public Radio. To see more, visit WFYI Public Radio.

Lee Gaines