School psychologist Mary Sherlach was in a conference with the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal and the mother of a second-grade student when they heard the staccato sounds of automatic gunfire. "We were there for about five minutes chatting and we heard, ‘pop pop pop,'" occupational therapist Diane Day told the Wall Street Journal. Sherlach and the principal confronted the shooter in the hallway, where he gunned them down before going on to kill another four staff members and 20 elementary school children. "They didn't think twice," about running toward the sound of gunfire to protect the children, Day said.
Sherlach will always be remembered as a hero for her actions on that tragic day, but what many people don't know is that she was a hero throughout her two decades as a school psychologist, says Bob Lichtenstein, PhD, Sherlach's former supervisor at her first psychology job, at New Haven, Conn., public schools. "Every day that I've known her, she has done everything in her power to take care of children, in ways large and small," Lichtenstein says.
Sandy Rodrigues, who interned with Sherlach at Sandy Hook for six months in 2011, agrees.
"She didn't draw the line anywhere in terms of where her work started and finished," says Rodrigues, now a school psychologist in Danbury, Conn. "Where she was needed — that's where she was."
That includes the school parking lot, where Sherlach spent many mornings to soothe the fears of one anxious little girl who refused to get out of her mother's car. "The mother would call Mary on the phone … and Mary would put her coat on and go out to the parking lot," Rodrigues recalls. "She would say, ‘I know how scared you are, but you are being so brave right now; I am so proud of you ….' She always knew the right thing to say.'"
Whether children were upset about the loss of a pet or their parents' divorce, Sherlach always gave them her full attention, Rodrigues recalls. "She really knew how to make them feel heard." Instead of sitting at her desk, Sherlach would kneel down to their level or sit on a low chair.
Sherlach was such a great listener, teachers often came to her with their frustrations as well, Rodrigues says. "She never took sides or spoke negatively about anyone. She was always that neutral, objective person that everyone knew they could trust," says Rodrigues. "That was a huge lesson for me."
Anyone who was lucky enough to have Sherlach as a mentor came away from the experience inspired, adds Frances Aponte, president of the Connecticut Association of School Psychologists. "She was full of knowledge and always helpful, and so generous with her time," Aponte says. "It's a great loss … she was an inspiration to so many people."
A generous mentor, colleague and mother
Sherlach majored in psychology an undergraduate at SUNY–Cortland, where she graduated cum laude in 1978. "She was a much better student than I was," recalls her husband, Bill Sherlach, who met her at a winter formal. The two married soon after graduation. Sherlach knew she would join a helping profession, her husband recalls, but she didn't want to go directly to graduate school until she had decided which one was right for her.
Before taking time off to have children Mary worked as a rehabilitation assistant in a psychiatric facility and a psychology assistant at a group home with disabled adults. She considered social work, but ultimately decided to become a school psychologist because it allowed her to work with children and take summers off to spend time with her own, Bill Sherlach says. So, after Mary had her second daughter, she enrolled at Southern Connecticut State University, where she received a school psychology master's degree in 1990 and a professional certificate in 1992.
Scherlach landed her first job as a school psychologist with New Haven public schools, and during her interview, "she struck me as bright, kind and caring," Lichtenstein recalls. His hunch turned out to be correct, he says. "She is remembered fondly by the entire school staff; I was sad to see her move to points west."
Sherlach loved her job, especially when she got to work directly with children, her husband says. "She was convinced that this is what she was meant to do," Bill Sherlach says. When she made a breakthrough with a particularly tough kid, "she came home so happy," he says.
Sherlach also enjoyed her summers off, which she spent on Lake Owasco, in New York. She spent hours working in the garden or rocking in the hammock, watching the play of light on the lake. "That home has been in her family for a long time, and she was looking forward to spending more time there," Bill Sherlach says.
Mary Sherlach hoped to retire "within the next few years," says her husband, but she didn't want to leave school psychology altogether. She hoped to find a part-time position as a school psychologist, working a few hours a week, her husband says. "She mostly worked with boys and she called them ‘my little boys,' since she had two girls of her own," Bill Sherlach says.
Mary Sherlach was extremely proud of her two daughters, says Rodrigues. Maura, 28, works as a chorus teacher and lives with her husband in Deptford, N.J., and Katy, 25, is working toward a PhD in chemistry at Georgetown University. "Mary's office was filled with pictures of her family," Rodrigues recalls.
"She was a phenomenal mom," Bill Sherlach says. "She's left a big hole in our lives."
The role of school psychologists
Mary Sherlach's tragic death has also left a hole in the lives of the Sandy Hook shooting survivors, Lichtenstein says. Had she lived, she would be helping the students, staff and families grapple with their shock and grief. Her selfless commitment to the safety of her students made her one of the casualties in one of the most lethal mass shootings in U.S. history, he says.
In her role as school psychologist, she probably would have helped draft her school's crisis planning, where schools map out how they will respond to various emergencies, Lichtenstein adds. These plans typically identify the roles of various staff members, describe evacuation and lockdown procedures, provide for access to emergency numbers and supplies, and plan for communication with parents, Lichtenstein says.
"In Connecticut, we were really ahead of the curve in terms of making these plans and having crisis drills," he says. "This is a tragic, stark reminder that there is only so much you can do in the context of the current social and political environment."
School psychologists also play an important role in preventing school violence, adds Shane Jimerson, PhD, the president of APA's Div. 16 (School). Research shows that the best way to prevent school violence is to create a community where children trust their teachers and administrators and let them know when fellow students appear to be sad, struggling or isolated, he says. "Research indicates that the students most at risk for violence are often those most alienated from the school community," he notes. One of the most effective ways to prevent school violence is to reach out to these students and integrate them into a caring community, he says.
What doesn't work is "making schools into fortresses," Jimerson adds.
"A determined person can get past almost any barrier," he says. "School violence prevention doesn't start when a shooter is in the parking lot."
That was the central message of a statement released Dec. 19 that was endorsed by Div. 16 and nearly 400 other mental health organizations, leading school psychologists and researchers.
To make children safe everywhere, we as a country must reduce children's exposure to violence in the media, increase access to mental health care and reduce the availability of lethal weapons "to people who are unwilling or unable to use them in a responsible, lawful manner," the statement says.
The goal of the statement, says Sue Swearer, PhD, Div. 16 secretary, is to communicate what researchers have found actually works to prevent violence, and to emphasize that schools are largely very safe. "In many cases, children are safer at schools than in their own homes," she says.