Newtown, Conn.—President Barack Obama met with the daughters of Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung Sunday and reaffirmed what they already knew: your mother was a hero, said the leader of the free world.
Dawn Hochsprung’s two adult daughters have always known that their mother—who had them at a young age and raised them mostly by herself—was a special individual who put children first.
Now, the whole world knows it, too.
The harrowing details in an ongoing police investigation into what motivated a gunman to kill 27 people are still emerging. What happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary School is coming into focus, and those who knew Dawn Hochsprung say they’re certain about the heroic role she played to save “her” children.
They are also remembering the would-be principal as a teen driven to secure equality for fellow female high school athletes, devoted mother who tried to better herself and her family, doting dog owner, vivacious educator and loyal friend.
The New York Times proclaimed on its front page Sunday morning there were ‘Acts of Heroism’ in the school, acts that probably saved lives. The paper was, of course, talking about the bold actions of Hochsprung, school psychologist Mary Sherlach and other teachers and staff who tried to stop the gunman or protect their schoolchildren.
According to the Daily Mail, Hochsprung, 47, and Sherlach, 56, were in a meeting when they heard gunshots ringing throughout the school Friday morning. The two jumped into action, lunging at the shooter in an attempt to save their beloved schoolchildren, who ranged in age from 5 to 11, the Mail says.
The gunman, later identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed both women, as well as 20 children and four other adults before shooting himself. He apparently had shot his mother to death earlier at their Sandy Hook home.
According to Hochsprung’s daughter, 27-year-old Erica Lafferty, as families gathered at the Sandy Hook Fire House Friday, waiting for word of their loved ones, one man told her that Dawn Hochsprung may have survived because he’d heard many people were found hiding in the building.
Lafferty said she responded: “You obviously don’t know my mother.”
“My mother wouldn’t be hiding from anyone, especially if there was someone trying to harm those children,” Lafferty told Patch.
Dawn Hochsprung’s friend, Patty Soracin of Bethlehem, CT, said she too knew that Dawn Hochsprung was gone when she heard about a shooter in the school.
“I knew there was no way in hell Dawn would let that gunman past her. She wasn’t afraid of a darn thing,” Soracin said. “When I heard what she did, I said, ‘That’s my girl.’ ”
Her Students Were Her Own Kids
It isn’t clear how many people Dawn Hochsprung and other adults inside the school saved during the tragedy; state police are investigating. According to eyewitnesses cited by the principal’s relatives, at least two teachers in the meeting Friday morning were spared by Dawn Hochsprung’s actions.
When her husband, George Hochsprung, went to the school on Sunday, teachers told him that during the incident, his wife ordered two of her fellow educators to hide in the principal’s office. This they did, Lafferty said, citing conversations George Hochsprung said he's had with the educators. Dawn Hochsprung, however, marched right into the hallway, the principals family members said.
Of slight stature, Dawn Hochsprung attempted to take down Lanza, according to New York Newsday.
It was a decision that may have cost Dawn Hochsprung her life, but one that also gave children, faculty and staff precious moments to reach safety.
It’s unclear whether Dawn Hochsprung turned on the school’s intercom so that others could hear the struggle and realize the lockdown was no drill. The school's intercome was turned on, though, Lafferty said educators have confirmed.
Lafferty said her mother was a quick-thinker and probably thought instantaneously how to act when she heard gunshots.
“She went running out into the hallway: how very Dawn of her,” Lafferty said. “I know my mom, and I know that whether it was me and my sister in that school, or 600 tiny, innocent children, she would have done the same thing. Her whole life, her students were her own kids. She kept the perfect balance between us and them.”
‘Always Take Care of Your Family’
Balance was something that came naturally to Dawn Hochsprung.
Born June 28, 1965, to William and Cheryl Lafferty, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung was a 1983 Naugatuck High School graduate who held a bachelor’s degree in special education from Central Connecticut State University and master’s degree education from Southern Connecticut State University.
The mom of two biological daughters, Erica, 27, and Christina Lafferty Hassinger, 28, she welcomed three more adult children through her marriage to George in 2004.
She also was a grandmother to three boys and girl—a role she embraced at a young age.
A Woodbury resident, Dawn Hochsprung was in her eighth year as an elementary school principal, her third in Newtown. She and George were also in the midst of building their dream home in upstate New York, and Dawn Hochsprung was pursuing a doctorate degree in education, with an eye on becoming a superintendent.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 1, she posted on her Facebook wall: “Submitted my first paper at midnight. Only 26 months of accelerated torture to go. Ed. D (doctorate of education) here I come!”
Though she was frequently going in 10 different directions, she was always there for her friends and family, according to those who knew her.
“Whenever she was with you, she made you feel like you were the most important person in the world,” Soracin said.
Lafferty said: “For me, the legacy I will take is that you always take care of your family. No matter what was going on at school, no matter what was going on in her life, if I called and said I needed her, she would be there in half the time it took a normal person.”
Doing Homework in the Stands
The juggling act that Dawn Hochsprung seemingly perfected had been going on for as long as Erica Lafferty could remember.
Dawn Hochsprung had her first child at 19—a second, Erica, 15 months later.
After getting divorced shortly thereafter, Dawn Hochsprung pretty much raised her two daughters on her own, with the help of some close family and friends.
All the while, Dawn Hochsprung continued to pursue her passion of working with children. She took classes at night, in the mornings, whenever she could fit them in, to obtain a degree. She eventually earned that diploma in special education from Central Connecticut State University and her master’s degree in education from Southern Connecticut State University.
“Between all of that, she never missed any of our athletic games, competitions, whatever,” Lafferty recalled. “She would be in the stands doing homework, but she would be there.”
Hard work paid off for Dawn Hochsprung in 2004 when she became principal at Bethlehem Elementary School.
Soracin, a parent of two daughters then at Bethelehem, was on the search committee that unanimously chose Dawn Hochsprung for the job.
“She was the very first candidate we interviewed, and when she walked in that door, she lit up the room,” Soracin recalled. “She was an amazing interviewee. Nobody compared to her. Every question we gave her, she soaked it up and smiled and was ready for the next question. She loved every minute of it.”
The committee had several more interviews and had to bring three names to the administration. But they knew exactly whom they wanted.
“We made it very clear Dawn was our principal,” Soracin said. “And, thankfully, they hired her.”
All for Children
Dawn Hochsprung put children first, no matter whether it was the popular or politically correct decision, according to those who knew her.
When the district that included Bethlehem reconfigured schools in a divisive and controversial move that involved neighboring Woodbury, Dawn Hochsprung publicly spoke out against the move. And though it could have been detrimental to her career, she spoke because she didn’t think the move was in the best interest of students.
Eventually, the reconfiguration went into effect and Hochsprung was transferred to Woodbury’s Mitchell Elementary School. Two years later, the Newtown job became available and Hochsprung made the move.
“I now think maybe she was meant to go there,” Soracin said. “She never left us, though. She kept in touch and her legacy remains.”
That legacy included an offbeat but popular decision to bring a dog into the school to help children with emotional issues. Hochsprung had her standard poodle, Bella, trained as a pet therapy dog. A fixture in the region’s school system, Bella would become a popular local news story.
“Who thinks to train your pet to turn it into a therapy dog to help kids?” Soracin said. “But that is who she was. She had an amazing mind and was always thinking about ways to help children.”
Linda Butkus, Dawn Hochsprung’s former secretary in Bethlehem, said her former boss constantly thought of others.
“She was a wonderful person who cared about her every staff member, her every student,” Butkus said. “She made everyone feel so good about themselves and pushed them to be the best they could be in whatever role they had in the school.
“She was always happy, but you always knew that she was in charge,” Butkus added. “She had a tremendous presence about her.”
A Leader From the Start
Leadership ability emerged in Dawn Hochsprung when she was very young, friends and relatives say.
In 1979, Dawn Hochsprung’s freshman year, Naugatuck High School did not have a girls’ track and field team. Dawn Hochsprung—then Dawn Lafferty—wanted to run.
She asked if she could be on the first girl on the boys’ team. The answer: not a chance.
Anybody who knew Hochsprung could tell you that was not an answer she would accept. So, with her parents’ help, she took on the school board—and won.
“She went out and recruited girls onto the team,” recalled Ron Aliciene, a retired Naugatuck school system administrator and girls’ track coach from 1979 to 1989. “I took classes, became the coach, and in my 10 years, she was the best captain I ever had.”
Though not the standout athlete, Hochsprung, who was also captain of the swim team and a class officer, was “literally like an assistant coach,” Aliciene recalled.
He kept in touch with Hochsprung and said she was on a fast track to become a superintendent. He has no doubt she would have been a great one.
“She had the ability to work with people as a team, and that is what you need as an effective administrator,” he said. “I told her, ‘When you become a superintendent, don’t forget your old coach.’”
‘With Courage and Love…’
Dawn Hochsprung’s niece, MaryAnn Suarez, of Naugatuck, said her aunt taught her that women can be strong and fearless.
“What our world has tragically learned now is what I have always known about her: My aunt was a hero,” Suarez said. “Heaven has definitely gained a beautiful hero.”
That is what Obama told Dawn Hochsprung’s daughters when he met with them Sunday, Lafferty said. Obama said it again during a televised memorial service at Newtown High School Sunday night.
“We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate,” Obama said. “Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy. They responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances: with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.”
With tears welling in her eyes, Soracin chose to remember more about how Hochsprung lived her life, not how it ended.
“She was someone who always embraced you with a hug,” Soracin said. “When she wrapped her arms around you, you knew you were loved. You knew you were safe.”