When a gunman tried to get into Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Northern California earlier this week, he found the school’s windows and doors locked. It was a school in lockdown, and the actions of teachers and school staff may have averted a massacre. 

For Michele Gay, it’s a hopeful sign of progress. Gay’s daughter Josephine was killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School shortly before the family was set to move to Massachusetts. And she’s been devoted to school safety ever since.

On that December day, now coming up on five years ago, as Michele Gay waited for seven-year-old Joey’s class to appear, anxious parents around her were asking how a shooter could have gotten into the school. She remembers realizing there wasn’t much to stop him. Joey was one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, and since then, Gay has made it her mission to make schools safer. She and another victim’s mother founded the non-profit Safe and Sound Schools, which is focused on education and advocacy around school security.

Gay said the story of Rancho Tehama Elementary School gives her hope, we’re moving in the right direction.

“We are unfortunately still seeing these horrific attacks in our communities and on our school grounds,” Gay said. “But here is pretty clear evidence that's that people and practice and basic, you know, infrastructure, simple measures, can be the difference between life and death.”

Teachers and staff at the California school reportedly heard gunshots and acted immediately.

“And unfortunately, because of our nation's experience there is a level of awareness that we have now that we didn't have five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” she said. “And awareness is a step in the right direction. That breaks down the barriers of denial and ‘we don't have to worry about that here.’ You know, these teachers, they knew better.”

Before the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary, Gay and her family had planned a move to Massachusetts. They made the move a month after Joey died.

“Moving to Massachusetts, we were able to put ourselves back together in a way that I'm not sure we could've had we stayed in Newtown,” she said. “The people of Massachusetts, the people of our little community in Sudbury just really rallied around us a in a uniquely New England way and that that's really just what we needed.”

When they arrived in Sudbury, Gay said her other daughters were nervous about going to school, and she met with the Sudbury police chief, who’d already been working to improve security in the schools. She said the town took steps to make them more secure.

“We noticed that there were measures being put into place to secure all of the exterior doors of schools,” she said. And schools started practicing lockdowns more regularly. As she traveled the state and the country with her non-profit, she says she started seeing the same kind of improvements. They’ve since moved out of state.

“In the four years that we were in Massachusetts, I saw a tremendous amount of change,” Gay said. “It changed for the better. Increased awareness, a real dedication to providing age appropriate education and training for students and for staff and for the community, on what do we have available to us? What can we do right here, right now to improve safety?”

Gay said there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to make schools safer. For now, though, there’s inspiration from Rancho Tehama Elementary School, where the actions of quick thinking and well-prepared school staff made all the difference.

“This is an exceptional story and it really is shining a light on how powerful our communities can be when we all come together with this focus on school safety,” she said.