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Hard-Won Lessons From a Tragic Day at Sandy Hook: Michele Gay’s Emotion-Laden Keynote at General Session 2

Michele Gay, keynote speaker during the 2nd General Session at the 2024 AASA Conference Friday, Feb. 16. Photo by Sandy Huffaker.

Michele Gay’s speech during General Session 2 at the AASA national conference on Friday began with easy-to-digest information on school safety and her own experiences as a teacher and mother of three school-age daughters.

Around the 25-minute mark, though, a sense of dread began to build. For the next 40 gripping, agonizing minutes, Gay took her audience to Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

That morning, a mentally disturbed 20-year-old shot his way into the school. He proceeded to murder the principal, school psychologist, four teachers and 20 six- and seven-year-olds. The victims included Gay’s youngest child, Josephine.

“I stand here in front of you 11 years into a journey I never could have imagined I would embark on in my lifetime,” she said. “It’s a journey I think none of us could imagine.”

Gay grew up in a family of teachers. She herself taught 2nd grade before marriage and motherhood launched her career as a stay-at-home parent.

She and her husband had three daughters, including Josephine, whom she described as “a little tornado, a wonderful tornado” with special needs.

The morning of Dec. 14, 2012, was typically hectic in the Gay household. Gay got the children up, dressed, fed and ready for school. While the two older girls caught buses to their respective schools, Josephine stayed behind. She had recently suffered a concussion and Gay wanted to personally deliver her to Sandy Hook Elementary.

“I decided I would keep her a little longer,” Gay said. “I’m so glad I did.”

In fact, Gay would drop off Josephine just minutes before the shooter arrived. Her last sight of her daughter? “She went bouncing into the building with two of her favorite teachers,” Gay recalled.

Shortly after Gay returned home, a phone call delivered a vague message: Newtown schools were locked down for an unspecified emergency.

“I was left with more questions than anything,” Gay said. Confused and alarmed, she drove toward the school, then detoured to follow sirens toward the volunteer fire station.

Misinformation was plentiful, accurate information scarce, even though the station swarmed with news media and first responders. A long, stressful wait ended with the shattering news of the massacre.

“I remember spending some time, a little frozen in time, having an out of body experience,” Gay said. “How does the world keep moving after this, how do we keep breathing, how do we keep moving forward?”

Some hard-won lessons emerged from that awful day, lessons Gay urged every school to adopt:

  • Develop a plan to deal with the news media, setting ground rules and building trust now, before an emergency arises. “It’s very difficult to think about that in the middle of a crisis,” Gay said.
  • Listen to the survivors and mourners. Sandy Hook victims became poster children for various causes – “many wonderful causes,” Gay acknowledged. But honor the families’ wishes. How do they want this tragedy memorialized?
  • Because events can unfold with breathtaking speed, streamline your emergency plans. “We want as many steps as possible to be eliminated,” Gay said.
  • If you suffer such a terrible loss, find a purpose.

For Gay and Alissa Parker, another mother of a Sandy Hook victim, this meant founding Safe and Sound Schools. This crisis-prevention organization has spread the gospel of school safety to 32,000 schools and 16 million students. The organization’s free Straight-A Safety Toolkit can be downloaded at

“Gone are the days when school safety gets to rest on the shoulders of one person,” Gay said. “If you want safe and sound schools, you must work together.”

(Peter Rowe is a reporter for Conference Daily Online and a freelance writer based in San Diego.)

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