Tragedy pushes family to take action: Couple who work to help schools prepare for crisis situations set to visit Penns Valley

Ellen and John-Michael Keyes know better than most about the pain that 26 families from Newtown, Conn., have been living with for last two months.

The Keyeses lost their daughter, Emily, in 2006 when a gunman entered a high school in Colorado, held seven girls hostage and ultimately shot and killed the couple’s 16-year-old.

Since then the pair have worked tirelessly to help schools and communities prepare for emergencies and prevent the worst from happening again. And later this year, they will bring their message to Centre County.

Penns Valley Area School District has arranged for the Keyeses to come to the district April 1 and share their perspective on school-safety protocols. Then later that evening, Penn State will host the Keyeses and school safety experts in a forum that will be broadcast to schools around the county.

The Keyeses’ visit to Penns Valley comes at a time when school districts are re-evaluating security measures in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Twenty young children and six school employees were killed in December when a gunman opened fire in the school before taking his own life.

Even in Penns Valley, nearly five hours away, the tragedy hit close to home. Millheim resident Beth Hochsprung Ewaskiewicz lost her stepmother, Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, who died while trying to save her students.

In the weeks after the shooting, Penns Valley officials began evaluating the district’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the safety of students, faculty and staff.

Part of that ongoing process means bringing in experts, like the Keyeses, to provide input. The couple, after losing their daughter, formed the I Love U Guys Foundation, which takes its name from one of the final text messages Emily sent to her parents.

According to the family’s website, Emily’s death moved her parents to extensively research school shootings, talk to experts and hold roundtable discussions with one question in mind: “Can we really help?”

The couple now share their expertise with communities across the country. They have developed a standard response protocol aimed at standardizing vocabulary to enable more rapid response and more predictable actions for students and teachers facing a crisis situation, the website said.

“They have a very good, very personalized and incredibly professional message they share,” said Lawrence Wess, executive director for the Pennsylvania School Study Council. “The Penns Valley School District is quite fortunate.”

Superintendent Brian Griffith said Penn State has donated the costs of live streaming the forum to Penns Valley and to other county school districts that wish to participate. In Penns Valley, residents will be invited to attend the forum and particulate in the discussion.

“It’s all about community awareness — how can the community help the school protect children and encourage safety,” Griffith said.

In addition to the Keyeses, the forum will feature a faculty panel that comprises experts in the field, who have done research in school safety and know what is and what isn’t effective.

“It’s pretty exciting stuff,” Griffith said. “Hopefully we can improve on what we already have.”