Sandy Hook Moms Lead Initiative on School Safety Issue
Guest Post by Michele Molnar
Safe and sound.
That sense of implied, comfortable security was the very least that Michele Gay and Alissa Parker expected for their daughters as the girls went off to Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
But Josephine Gay, 7, and Emilie Parker, 6, became two of the 20 students who died—along with six adult staff members— in the Newtown, Conn. school shooting that day.
Today, Gay and Parker are working to bring greater security to the 56 million children who attend a K-12 school in the U.S.
Within five months of the tragedy, the girls' mothers joined forces with four families to launch Safe & Sound, a Sandy Hook Initiative—an organization intent on helping communities across the country improve school security—even when they are short on funds to do so.
Their activism includes creating a Safe and Sound website to disseminate community toolkits and provide information, speaking to groups, responding to inquiries from parents, and providing media interviews to raise awareness. On Thursday, Dec. 12, they will be featured in "Honoring the Children: One Year Later," a CNN documentary airing at 9 p.m.
Parker and Gay chose this form of advocacy in memory of their children, to have an impact, and because it kept them out of the gun control debate that raged as the Newtown community reeled from the shooting committed by one of its own citizens. "We're apolitical," said Parker. "We have steered away from that other discussion, which can be divisive."
As part of their preparation to launch their nonprofit, the parents researched other school shootings to see where security could have been better.
For her part, Parker wished there had been "lock and prop" doors in all the Sandy Hook classrooms, so that teachers could simply release the doors in an emergency. That low-tech solution has proven to deter shooters elsewhere. "They don't waste time with locked doors," Parker said.
Gay believes reinforcing windows with ballistic film could have helped, too, since the Sandy Hook assailant shot out glass to gain access.
To learn as much as they could, the families consulted with experts in the field, and considered products sold to school systems. They participated in the release of the federal guidelines. "We talked with folks at the Department of Education and the Department of Justice and Homeland Security," said Gay, who called the resulting Federal Emergency Management Agency report that was developed "a step in the right direction" because it establishes guidelines.
Their conclusion? Each school needs to do its own evaluation and create a plan.
"We are advocating for a tailored, layered approach to every school. It's imperative that folks work together, to see what their school needs," said Gay. Districts can hire security consultants to do assessments of schools' vulnerability, but it doesn't take a professional to see where there might be room for improvement. In fact, parents, students, teachers, and cafeteria workers or janitors can often spot issues that could be fixed—like a back door routinely left unlocked so food service providers can make deliveries.
Parker said the two questions she is asked most often in emails from concerned parents are: "Where do we start?" and "Where do we get the money?"
In response to the first, the Safe and Sound team created toolkits to guide three steps—assess, act, and audit.
On the funding issue, Gay said it's not always a matter of money. She used the example of a high-tech ID scanner. "Too often people say, 'We just spent half a million dollars. We're OK now,'" she explained, noting that over-confidence in one system can lead to a false sense of security. "We're big proponents of having lots of layers to security," she said. Parker agreed: "It's not a matter of having the most expensive gadget out there; it's about having simple, good safety practices," she said.
Whatever the community decides it wants, "parents should fight for their voices to be heard," said Parker, who now sits on a security team for Newtown schools. Before the incident, the committee existed, but it had no parental representation.
"Don't ever underestimate the power of parents," Gay added. "They fundraise for their own school, and can advocate for the allocations they want." Education Week wrote, earlier this year, about how schools are allocating funds for new security measures this year.
"A lot of people have been awakened by this tragedy," said Parker. "We want to help."
Gay more deeply explains her experience and perspective in "A Newtown Parent: We All Must Do Our Part," a post she authored for Education Week's Op Education blog.
Gay and Parker encourage parents, educators, and school staff to contact them at [email protected]