COLUMBUS: When Dec. 14 comes and the world remembers the Sandy Hook shootings, Alissa and Robbie Parker will spend some family time with their surviving children.
They figure no one needs to know where or how they will mark the death of first-grader Emilie. They reason that no one could fully appreciate their pain except the 25 other families who also suffered losses that day in Newtown, Conn.
“As the anniversary comes up there are going to be people that want to remember the 26 families that had losses,” Robbie Parker said. “But we want to remember Emilie the best way our family can.”
That’s why it is so remarkable the Parkers were willing to travel to Ohio on Tuesday to talk about their grief, the shootings and what they have learned.
The Parkers are on a mission: They want to tell America what can be done to protect children and educators. They know things can be done today with a minimum of money.
So they joined Michele Gay, another parent of a slain Sandy Hook child, to form Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative.
That brought the Parkers to the Ohio School Boards Association 2013 Capital Conference to talk about their website, www.safeandsoundschools.org, and their safety and security ideas.
But first, they told their story.
Alissa Parker spoke of how she first heard about the shootings while Christmas shopping, how she rushed to get close to the school, spending hours of doubt as the crime scene was inspected, and how she heard the terrible truth about her 6-year-old daughter. It was clear she was fighting back tears as she talked in a classroom-like setting at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Anger emerged only when she described her outrage on top of pain and grief when news photographers confronted the families minutes after being told the children were dead.
Robbie Parker, a physician’s assistant, then told of events at the school. He never called the killer by name, referring to him only as “the shooter.” His voice also faltered as he talked about how the shooter used his gun to break a window to enter and how he moved from room to room. At each step, he told of how investigators now know ways the killer could have been stopped.
For example, he said, 11 children rushed to safety, employing a safety procedure they had learned only a week earlier. He said people, especially children, revert to habit in stressful times and repeated drills are the only way to allow that.
Projected overhead as the father talked was a Tweet from Principal Dawn Hochsprung made during that exercise the previous week: “Safety First at Sandy Hook. It’s a beautiful day for our evacuation drill.”
Hochsprung was one of the first to die Dec. 14, and no one was empowered to take over in an emergency. The Parkers say another lesson is that every position in the security plan must have a backup.
As Robbie Parker listed the lessons learned, he said collaboration is a key. He urged school officials to meet with parents, police and others to talk locally about security.
He said security teams will learn of quick, inexpensive steps like a film for glass that would have slowed the gunman from blasting through. Rearranged parking might have required him to walk farther and be detected earlier before entering. Doors can be changed to enable teachers to lock classroom doors from the inside; the doors at Sandy Hook could not.
Some products will incur some cost.
The Parkers were flown to Columbus by NaviGate Prepared, which sells a software product that puts school floor plans, videos and other data on the Internet and available in safety vehicles answering an emergency call. A spokeswoman for NaviGate said the company has no financial arrangement with the Parkers.
The first step in a school-security collaboration, as listed on the Safe and Sound website, is to assess current security at the school. Alissa Parker said that move is virtually cost-free.
“I don’t feel like the most expensive thing is the most important thing,” she said in an interview before the presentation. “I think there is a lot to be said for good practices, good policy, one-time expenses or things that are low-cost as a continuation of keeping up your school security.”
Step two is for educators, parents and safety forces to take actions on the many simple things that can be done quickly.
Alissa Parker said some people will balk, saying they don’t want to scare children with talk of threats at school. They also might complain something is too expensive.
“We want to take those roadblocks and give [opponents] no excuse, give them the information and provide answers for them that help anyone with any kind of budget to make improvements now,” she said. “It’s not about changing it all; it’s about chipping it away.”
Finally, the Parkers want communities to audit their decisions, or test them, to see if they work. The key is to be willing to learn and change as necessary.
Getting everyone together to collaborate and ask questions is important from the start.
The Parkers wish they had done that more than a year ago. They are doing it now for their surviving children’s schools.
“It’s something that we regretted not doing earlier,” Alissa Parker said. “These were things that we thought of prior to the shooting; we had conversations about this. The exact things that failed our daughter were things that we talked about previously.
“We regretted that we didn’t take those things seriously and that we didn’t talk about them with anyone,” she said. “We want people to basically learn from our hindsight.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.