020818 Schools: Sandy Hook mom says communities matter for safety
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Schools: Sandy Hook mom says communities matter for safety

By Emily Topper
Coastal Observer

For Michele Gay, making schools safer is a community effort. And, she says, it’s tangible.

“I want people to walk away with a sense of empowerment and control over the safety of their own school and community,” Gay said. “What we are hearing is just this feeling of helplessness, like there’s nothing people can do to turn the tide. It’s heartbreaking. That’s what we’re aiming to change.”

Gay is the co-founder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative. The program, which Gay will present today at Waccamaw High, was started to spark a national conversation about school safety and preparing schools for the unthinkable.

Gay has lived that conversation firsthand. Her daughter, Josephine, was one of 19 children and six teachers killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012. Her Thursday event will follow her personal experiences and the lessons learned since.

“I still wake up every morning and have to walk my way through the fact that it happened,” she said. “Much less that it happened in our sleepy little town with high test scores and no crime. We start by making it personal, we walk through the experience with them and how the unthinkable was able to happen. Making it personal for folks is something that is eye-opening.”

The goal of the initiative, Gay said, is to get community members from students and parents to teachers and staff thinking about ways they can “step up as leaders and make a difference.”

Despite the number of school shootings each year, Gay doesn’t think that people have become desensitized to the issue.

“I think it’s not so much that people are numb or desensitized,” she said. “I think they’ve begun to feel helpless based on how these tragedies are being reported. I think school communities … are realizing that a focus on guns is not necessarily getting them anywhere. “

“Folks are looking deeper to make changes in their communities, so they are looking at the underlying causes. They have become tired and exhausted of the same story unfolding in the news, so they’re taking it upon themselves to look deeper. It’s so much more of what leads up to the tragic events. If we really want to understand them, we have to step away from some of the rhetoric and the news cycle and look beyond the surface, and look at how we can be part of the solution.”

Looking deeper, Gay says, is like “revealing the curtain.”

“When we leave after our first visit to a school, you can’t help but feel excitement and motivation and inspiration,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to be able to follow-up with them. People are suddenly aware that they have an enormous amount of power. This isn’t about breaking hearts, or shock and awe and horrifying people. It’s really about learning from our experience and helping facilitate them in their progress and their own school community.”

That effort can include expanding school resource officers on campus, encouraging communication between both school staff and students, adding extra safety measures at school events and addressing mental health.

“It’s all hands on deck,” she said. “It takes everyone from students to librarians. Everyone who lives and breathes in the school community has to be a part of it and invested. Mental health especially, we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do to really make a difference. But there’s a lot we can do with the resources we have now, and that’s really exciting for people to realize.”

Gay said that the Safe and Sound program averages about 100 individual school visits per year. Through speaking to school superintendents, school resource officers and other school leaders, she said, she can reach about 500 schools.

“The need is so real,” she said. “People are so hungry for practical things they can be doing right now. We’re working to combat that sense of helplessness and hopelessness.”

Gay will share her experiences at 6 p.m. at Waccamaw High. The event is free to the public, and a first responders expo will take place at 5 p.m.

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