Following the tragic mass shooting four years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary, two grieving mothers came together with a shared goal of empowering communities across the nation to improve safety and security in their own schools through the power of discussion, collaboration and planning and the sharing of information schools and resources.
Michele Gay said she and Alissa Parker had not been close before the tragedy, but their two daughters were good friends. Seven-year-old Josephine Gay and six-year-old Emilie Parker were among the 20 children and six adult staff members killed when an armed intruder gained entry to the building.
Together, the two mothers started the nonprofit Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative for Safer Schools, a platform that allows them to share information, ideas and the hard lessons learned from the events that transpired leading up to and following the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.
Gay said both girls were both very positive forces in the world, and, through the efforts of organization, they continue to be.
“We’d like to think our daughters brought us together around doing something really positive and really helpful and proactive for schools,” she explained. “We felt really pulled in the direction of working to help school communities make sure that they are safe from not only from the kind of unforeseen and unimaginable tragedy that we suffered but from some of the other tragedies and crises that kind of befall schools on a more regular basis.”
What started out as two mothers on a mission, has grown over the last three years into a huge network of speakers, advisors and professional contributors. The network includes a panel of experts who travel across the country to deliver keynote speeches and workshops.
“We started reaching out to experts and organizations and people that had been working on these issues of school safety for a long time,” Gay said. “We realized there’s a tremendous amount of information out there but unfortunately it’s just not trickling down to the people who need it in our schools, our teachers, our students and our educators. So that became our mission pretty quickly to get it to the right people.”
The organization’s website, safeandsoundschools.org, features free downloadable toolkits that educators and parents can use to facilitate conversations, problem-solving, and partnerships in their school community. There is also a special section for “Inspiring Ideas,” which includes low-cost and no-cost ways that schools can do to enhance safety.
As Gay and Parker continued to grow their team and organizational partnerships in Connecticut, a group of designers and developers in Tuscarawas County were getting ready to launch software featuring tools to help school districts plan and prepare for emergency situations.
NaviGate Prepared is a cloud-based software program developed by Lauren Innovations, a division of Lauren International. The program features tools to help districts develop, access and implement their emergency safety plans and procedures.
As they worked to grow and improve their program, the team reached out to Safe and Sound for feedback on how to improve their product.
“They reached out to us probably about three years ago when we had just first founded our mission,” Gay said. “They felt a lot of synergy, and they were really excited about what we were doing and felt that it was very complimentary to their own work to make schools safer.”
Gay said the company became Safe and Sound’s first corporate sponsor and has been a huge supporter of the organization’s mission.
“We really value innovators like Lauren. We really value people that are out there trying to make better tools for school safety really trying to make it a little easier to do some of the hard work of trying to make our schools safer,” Gay said. “We frequently have conversations with them about what we’re seeing as a need, what school communities are asking for, what they’re struggling with. It’s amazing to see what they do with it. “
Lauren Innovations General Manager Thom Jones, who led the sales and marketing efforts for the new software, said the two mothers were very gracious in sharing with the company the lessons their community learned post-Sandy Hook. A lot of components have been added to the software based on feedback from Safe and Sound and the Newtown school district.
Jones said the company has launched an app that gives educators instant access to a flip chart that details the appropriate response to various different emergency scenarios like bomb threats and the presence of an armed intruder. Another part of the app helps teachers keep track of their students during safety drills and emergencies. If schools have cameras and they are IP-capable, Jones said those cameras can also be connected to the NaviGate Prepared software to give first responders instant access to real-time video footage.
Jones said the software has been provided at no charge to all the school districts in Tuscarawas County. Those districts test out components of the software before they are made available to the public and released to other districts.
Jones said the company has gotten great feedback from those school districts who say the software has streamlined the process of becoming compliant with the state’s new school safety law, which went into effect at the beginning of 2015. They also say they feel like they are more prepared for emergencies than they were before.
“That’s one of the big pieces that we really emphasize with any school that we work with is that preparation and making sure that you are as prepared as possible for any potential emergency that could occur,” Jones said.
Gay said her organization also emphasizes the importance of planning and preparing for any emergency scenario, not just an active shooter situation.
“What we experienced is something fortunately, believe it or not, that is actually pretty rare in the United States to experience in a school community,” she said. “Nevertheless, you do see tragedies like tornados, we see fires, we see accidents that occur in our communities, so what we really encourage communities to do is be thinking of an all-hazards approach. Rather than trying to imagine every possible eventuality and unimaginable events to really be thinking more broadly about types of hazard that we can prepare for so we’re prepared for safety regardless of what the circumstances are.”
Jones said NaviGate prepared is currently being used in hundreds of school districts throughout the country, including half of the school districts in Ohio.