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Editor's Agenda

Newtown massacre: Remembering the female school employees killed

/ Dec 17, 2012 10:11AM / Print / ()

Names of victims are displayed on a flag in the business area December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The scale of loss following the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre is so unimaginable that it's difficult to know where to start in considering the senseless violence.

But for a site like Women's Agenda it seems pertinent to take a look at some of the school employees killed in the violence. Those who went about their regular job that day only to face an unimaginable terror at their place of work, and pay the ultimate price for attempting to protect their young students.

Six of the 26 killed were employees of the school: the school's principal and psychologist, and four teachers. They were all women. This isn't uncommon. In the US school shootings since 1996, teachers and school employees often lost their lives in the violence. 

And as in previous school shootings, at Sandy Hook there have been plenty of stories of staff members doing what they could to stop the gunman and protect students in the process.

There was principal Dawn Hochsprung who is reported to have run from a meeting in her office when she heard shots being fired. Along with psychologist Mary Sherlach, witnesses said Hochsprung lunged at the gunman in an effort to subdue him. They were both fatally shot. Sherlach had plans to retire next year. "They didn't think twice about confronting or seeing what was going on," school therapist Diane Day told The Wall Street Journal.

There was also Vicki Leigh Soto, a 27-year-old teacher who used her body as a shield to protect students in her year one class. Police said she put herself between the kids and the gunman's bullets. And there was Anne Marie Murphy, whose body was found covering children.

There were other stories of heroism from staff members who survived the massacre. They used their training and drill practise (In Australia, students undertake fire drills; in the US they go through "active shooter drills") to lock doors, get students to safety, and keep them calm during the ordeal.

It's shocking to think that teachers in the US go to work each day with the very real threat of gun violence.

And yet one of the answers to this horror seems so obvious we can only shake our heads knowing that such a response is so politically fraught it's likely to be discussed, but unlikely to actually result in much action.

Instead, it seems schools and their employees will take it upon themselves to do what they can: identify students at risk of perpetrating violence, put in place even further security measures and practise more drills on what to do should somebody enter the school with a gun with the sole purpose of causing maximum loss of life.

Teachers in Australia face risks at work every day. But while the unimaginable is always possible, for the most part they can assume they're safe from coming up against someone wielding a semi-automatic weapon. Indeed, there has been no gun massacre since former prime minister John Howard's gun reform laws enacted 13 years ago. In 2010, ANU academic Andrew Leigh reported the gun-related homicide rate had dropped 59% since the historic buy-back scheme was introduced.

Surely there's something in that.

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