Three days after her seventh birthday, with invitations sent for her upcoming party, Josephine Gay went to school one day but never came home.
Josephine – known as Joey – was one of the 20 students and 6 teachers killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012.
“We miss her every day. We feel very much she's a part of our lives still,” her mother, Michele Gay, said.
Nearly two years later, Michele told her story Tuesday to a packed room of Northeast Ohio superintendents and school leaders, turning tragedy into a mission to make schools safer.
“We sort of feel like, we're stuck with this pain. If we're going to have to carry it around for the rest of our lives we might as well make really good use of it,” she said.
Through a mother's lens, she walked them through the events of that day, highlighting the things that worked and didn’t work.
“There were a lot of lessons both good and bad, and I didn't want them to get lost,” Gay said. “I wanted them to be used by other communities.”
She spoke of courageous actions by students, staff and first responders who risked their lives to protect students.
She also noted simple measures that could have saved lives had they been in place, like teachers being able to lock classroom doors from the inside, which Sandy Hook teachers could not do. Other lessons included tips for training and communication during and after an emergency.
“It was very sobering and very educational at the same time,” said Revere Local Schools Superintendent Randy Boroff.
“This was an inspiring message. It's an important message and something I'm going to take back to my district and we continue to refine our procedures to make sure our kids are safe,” said Highland Local Schools Superintendent Catherine Auckerman.
Gay co-founded the non-profit ‘Safe and Sound’ to advocate for safer schools and provide resources to schools and first responders. She speaks to groups a few times a month, carrying on a promise she made to Joey the night before her death.
“I made a promise to her that I would never give up on her,” she said. “That promise took on a different context for me when she was gone.”