PLYMOUTH — The faculty, staff and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, prepared for the worst just like others schools do — but when the nightmare of an attack actually happened on Dec. 14, 2012, life or death came down to little things people never considered.
“The ability to just lock the classroom door would have saved lives. I am certain of it,” said Sandy Hook parent Michele Gay, who lost her youngest daughter, Josephine.
Her comments came at Wayzata High School on Thursday, Oct. 19, before a gathering of school administrators from around the region. About 35 people were present. School was out for MEA weekend.
Gay, who is a co-founder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools, told the story of the day her child died.
An educator herself, she is from Maryland, but she and her family moved to Connecticticut in 2006. On the day of the shooting, her husband already was working at a new job in Massachusetts and the family was nearing the move date. The oldest daughter attended intermediate school. The younger daughters were in first and fourth grades at Sandy Hook.
That day, Gay got the older girls off to school and held the youngest back before driving to the school herself 25 minutes late. She returned home, prepared to eat and the phone rang. It was a recorded message from the superintendent: “All of our schools are on lockdown. There has been a shooting.”
Images of Columbine raced through her mind, and she thought it must be at the high school. She knew a lockdown meant no one at the school would answer the phone, but she tried to call anyway. No answer.
She decided to tool around town. Soon, she was overtaken by emergency vehicles.
“This is big,” she thought. “This is more emergency vehicles than I have ever seen.”
Gay followed them toward Sandy Hook. At a firehouse near the school, the engines were out of the bays. She knew part of the school’s emergency procedures was to walk the students to the firehouse. She then noticed the J-shaped road to the school was blocked with response vehicles.
“Obviously, I am going to have to hoof it,” she said.
She ended up being one of the first parents to arrive but, as a result, hadn’t taken in the news reports. She didn’t know what happened.
She spotted lines of children being escorted by teachers or troopers and found her fourth-grader in a line. Gay displayed calmness and told the boys and girls they would be safe at the firehouse, then headed to the school to find Josephine. She wanted to find administrators. She found uniformed law officers, not school leaders.
“This was very unsettling to me,” she said.
She later learned they were either killed or incapacitated.
Five minutes after Gay had dropped off her daughter, a mentally disturbed 20-year-old man had shot and killed 26 people at the school, of which 20 were first-graders and another six were adult staff members. That day, he also killed his mother and himself.
The attacker didn’t bother with the buzz-in system of the locked doors. He just shot the adjacent floor-to-ceiling windows and walked on in.
“He had been planning this for some time.”
The administrators, Gay said, were in a conference room near the entrance and came pouring out. The gunman killed the principal and the school psychologist. The lead teacher, shot in the leg and the hand, pretended to be dead.
“This choice saved her life,” Gay said.
The method for a lockdown called for someone getting on the public address system and announcing it. However, because of the location of the intercom controls, no one could get past the attacker to reach them.
A custodian, smelling gunpowder and seeing the broken glass, began to yell, “Lockdown!” repeatedly and locking rooms, two moves Gay said saved lives.
The protocol for a lockdown required teachers to step out to the hallway, insert keys into the outside of the doorknobs and then re-enter the classrooms, pulling the doors shut behind them. It all goes well in the calmness of practice, but fine motor skills while facing gunfire in a hallway wasn’t considered, Gay noted. Protocol failed.
The gunman walked down the hallway, and the windows of the first classroom to the left had black construction paper over the windows from a safety drill two weeks prior, making it difficult to see if anyone was there. He skipped that room and went to the next.
He killed the teachers, then fired at the children. Some children, Gay said, survived because they hid in the restroom. Another group, she said, lived because when the attacker fumbled with his gun, they ran right past him and out of the school to safety. They headed down the sidewalk and didn’t seek cover behind parked cars because time and again they had been told not to walk in the parking lot.
The children who remained in the classroom were killed.
He went to the next classroom, where Josephine was. The teacher and therapist had piled all the kids into the tiny restroom in an attempt to hide them. Because the door opened inward, there was no way they could shut it, so they stood in front of it. The gunman killed them, with a single survivor.
There were many safety measures not considered during drills, Gay noted.
For one, the classroom doors. For two, the easy access despite the buzz-in system.
After the gunman killed himself, the role of the law officers suddenly changed. They hadn’t practiced what to do after the threat is removed.
Another aspect was the children at the firehouse were being picked up and taken home by just about anyone, often friends and neighbors or one spouse and not the other. This left parents bewildered about the whereabouts of their little ones. She noted responders hadn’t known about reunification protocol.
Having only one place to reach the intercom and safety alarms left the school vulnerable.
“Maybe it’s time to build some redundancy into our plans,” Gay said.
Too many districts are relying on the plan of “not here,” though an attack could happen anywhere, she said.
James Marcella with Axis Communications said his company holds safety symposiums several times a year around the country and hires speakers to illustrate security issues and to consider how shooter scenarios unfold.
Another speaker, Paul Timm, vice president of Facility Engineering Associates in Washington, D.C., gave three tips for school safety planning: 1. collaboration, with no single person shouldering all the decisions, 2. include students, 3. awareness, changing the culture away from the “can’t happen here” Mayberry feeling and toward an active approach.