Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of conversations with those who have survived high-profile shootings or lost loved ones to them. The other interviews, as well as background about the series, can be found here.
When Alissa Parker sees a school, one of the first things she thinks about is whether it’s safe enough. That’s been the case ever since her daughter Emilie was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary five years ago.
In the wake of the shooting, Parker has made the issue of school safety a central cause of her life, co-founding an organization called Safe and Sound Schools that aims to help schools prevent and respond to crises. She’s focused on practical solutions, like changes to school facilities and better-run lockdown drills.
I spoke with Parker about what it’s like to watch the same conversation about gun violence play out over and over, and why she thinks conversations about how nothing has changed since Sandy Hook miss the point. The conversation that follows has been edited for clarity and length.
Isabel Fattal: How has your day-to-day life changed in the past five years?
Alissa Parker: My life completely changed after that day, not just because I lost my sweet daughter. My whole entire family dynamic changed. The way I parented changed, and the way I saw the world—it was like the innocence was gone. It’s taken some time to see the balance again—that it’s not so bleak and hopeless, that there is so much goodness to be seen. So that’s something I’ve had to really work at seeing again as a result of this.
I never imagined my life would be focused on being an advocate for school safety. Over the last five years, I have dedicated so much of my time to this work. It is both fulfilling and heartbreaking all at the same time.
When I see people see school safety for what it is, and when it works, and communities come together and invest in the safety of their children, I've seen so many beautiful things happen. When I see people overlook the importance of those steps—the holistic approach to school safety—and become divisive and argue, that just breaks my heart, as well as seeing these shootings happen again and again. Every time, it just brings back so many emotions from that day.
Fattal: What have you felt as you’ve watched the nation respond to the Parkland shooting?
Alissa: I’m disheartened by the fact that we even have to still have these discussions. I wish this would have stopped as soon as our shooting happened, even before our shooting happened. It’s never lost on me why this is getting the attention it is. As far as the reaction and the response, I’m encouraged by the way that our youth are taking a stand and saying, “There’s so much that needs to be done, and we want to see it through.” I see the power that they have, and I see the strength their voices have.
Fattal: Are you feeling anything different this time, after Parkland, given how it has sustained national attention?
Parker: I don’t think I feel anything different from one that gets more attention than the other. If I hear of one that barely gets mentioned in the news, I feel the exact same way as I do when one gets more attention, like the Parkland shooting has. I don’t think that changes for me.
Fattal: Why do you think this national conversation is happening now? How does this feel different from the response to Sandy Hook?
Parker: I think there were several factors. One is that these kids have their own voice, and they experienced something horrific. The children that were there that day at Sandy Hook did not have the ability to communicate that; they weren't at the age where they could. So the parents were doing that for them. The other issue is centered around the debates that came after Sandy Hook. And we still see those debates to a certain degree right now. I think that people are angry when things like this happen, and they want to point to the nearest thing to blame. If they can solve that one thing, they feel better. They feel like they can go back to their normal lives.
And it's not that easy. It's not as simple as saying, Pass this law and we will be safe. After Sandy Hook, all the focus and all the energy was in passing laws about guns, and I felt like it was very short-sighted. I think it’s important for us to look at these stories and the reason that this happens over and over again—because we are looking for one quick solve-all, and there isn't one. It's hard work. It's hustle. It's collaboration, and that doesn't always sound very appealing to people. People want something quick and easy.
Fattal: You have two daughters today, aged nine and 10. What do they make of the Parkland shooting and the conversation around it?
Parker: My kids have been raised in a very unique position where this isn’t something new to talk about. The fact that these things are happening, the conversation we are seeing the public have surrounding school safety, is one we’ve had for the last five years. It's never something that gets lost with my kids. We've taught them to voice concerns when they see them, to take actions. We've really tried to let them lead those discussions.
Fattal: How did you get started with your school-safety advocacy work?
Parker: I think when something like this happens, your initial reaction is, How did this happen? Answering that question for myself and my search for more information, going to meet with the police department and replaying the events of that day in my head, organically led me down this path of advocacy for school safety. Once I understood what simple security measures could have saved my daughter's life, there was no stopping my voice. People had to know, and no one was talking about those things. That was very difficult for me to see, because I felt like people were missing out on an opportunity. I wanted someone else to be talking about it—that wasn't exactly what I felt like I could spend my energy on—but I just couldn't be silent.
Fattal: Is it in any way frustrating to see issues that you've been talking about for so many years suddenly get more attention?
Parker: I’ve never really thought of it in those terms because of the work that I do—I am always seeing someone doing it. The nation doesn't see all of these communities that we've been working with improving and being successful. The topic that everyone focuses on is failed legislation, versus successful communities who have made improvements to their schools. And I see that. So I don't sit around feeling frustrated, because I see success. But on a national level, as far as the news and politicians are concerned, we don't see that talked about always, and it's hard to get that in the news, because it's not as interesting or conflicting as some of the other topics.