Michele Gay was a second-grade teacher in Ellicott City when two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. She remembers thinking nothing would ever be as shocking or tragic, and the country would do everything it could to prevent another school shooting.
But then, she, her husband and their three daughters moved to Newtown, Conn., where on Dec. 14, 2012, she would receive an alert that the town’s schools were on lockdown because of a shooting. She raced back to Sandy Hook Elementary, where earlier that morning she had dropped off her youngest, 7-year-old Josephine — “Joey” to her family — and Gay would learn she was one of 20 children killed along with six staff members.
“We’re always going to miss her terribly,” Gay said. “But we feel closer and closer to her every day.”
The Gay family moved back to their native Maryland in November when her husband, Bob, became chief operating officer of the American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va., which offers online degree and certificate programs. Michele Gay is a stay-at-home mom who in the wake of Sandy Hook partnered with another parent, Alissa Parker, to create the advocacy group Safe and Sound Schools.
The group helps schools create safer environments, a mission that she said remains vital “now more than ever, especially in the wake of this last tragedy.”
Last week, a former student attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 students and staff — renewing memories for the Gay family of “how we lost Joey.”
“It takes you right back,” Gay said.
She is from Columbia and went to Centennial High School, then earned degrees from Towson University and McDaniel College. Bob Gay is from Towson and graduated from Calvert Hall and Towson University.
They took their love of the Ravens with them as they moved to Newtown, and a picture of Joey in a Ravens T-shirt circulated widely in the aftermath of her death. Joey, who had autism and apraxia, which prevented her from speaking, loved all things purple, prompting the Ravens, several players and many Marylanders to send condolences to the family.
Joey had turned 7 just three days before the shootings, and her family had planned a birthday party for the day after it. The family had been in the process of moving to Sudbury, Mass., with Bob having taken a job in nearby Concord, and they ultimately went ahead with those plans.
The family now lives in Mount Airy. Michele Gay continues her work with Safe and Sound Schools and rejects the commonly held view that nothing has changed since Sandy Hook.
“In terms of nothing happening in gun control legislation, yes,” she said of stymied efforts on the national front. “But communities have been engaged in a grassroots level.”
While other advocacy groups focus on gun control, Safe and Sound Schools offers training on preparing for emergencies, and responding and recovering from such incidents. Gay is particularly proud of her group’s Safe and Sound Youth Council, which has promoted student involvement in the issue, given that since the Wednesday shootings, Parkland students themselves have emerged as leading voices against mass violence.
“One of the first groups to start reaching out to us was high school students,” she said. “It’s a way to take a seat at the table. I think they’re hurt and they’re upset and they’re frightened — enough is enough.”
She predicts that student-led efforts, which include organizing protests and walk-outs and meeting with government officials, will produce results.
“That’s going to have a huge impact,” Gay said. “They have so much energy. It’s a time for energy and action, and I think kids bring that to the table. They are a huge part of the solution.”