When the first sounds of gunshots echoed through the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday morning, Dawn Hochsprung left the safety of her office and took off running toward the shooter, who had forcibly entered through the front doors. School therapist Diane Day, who was with her when they heard a “pop, pop, pop” in the hallway, said the principal, along with psychologist Mary Sherlach and the school’s vice principal, didn’t spare a moment before running out to investigate the noise.
"They didn't think twice about confronting or seeing what was going on," Day told The Wall Street Journal.
Only the vice principal returned, with a gunshot to the leg. She would be the only surviving victim of the attack.
On Saturday, officials in Newtown, Conn., lauded the heroism of Hochsprung, a relatively new principal, noting she had lunged toward the shooter in an attempt to overtake him before being fatally shot. A fourth-grade teacher at the school credits Hochsprung with flipping on the intercom switch, which broadcast “screaming and crying,” through the school, in order to warn teachers.
As principal of 700 students, Hochsprung had recently instituted new security measures for the school, including visual recognition for entering. Tragically, her best attempts to make the building safe weren’t enough to keep out Adam Lanza, the disturbed 20-year-old who forcibly entered the school around 9:30 that morning.
Hochsprung’s close friends aren’t surprised by the heroic actions of a woman they remember as putting her students first. In fact, long before Friday’s senseless shooting, the dedicated educator had mulled over the “what if” of a school shooting.
“We rehearsed this and we talked about this after the Columbine incident, and ironically enough, one of the things we talked about is the reasons why people do that,’’ her friend Gerald Stomski told the Today Show. “If she was here to speak, she would say that we as individuals need to reach out as our responsibility and try to reach out to these troubled people ahead of time.’’
"I don't think you could find a more positive place to bring students to every day," Hochsprung told a local paper in 2010 when she first started at the elementary school. As news of the tragedy emerged Friday and Saturday, parents at Sandy Hook raved about a principal who truly cared about their kids—a woman who made “going to the principal’s office” a reason for excitement, not dread. "I never saw her without a smile," Aimee Seaver, the mother of a first grader, told CNN. "I believe she had the children's best intentions [in mind] all the time. She was always looking out for them."
Hochsprung was a highly motivated educator, and being the principal of Sandy Hook wasn’t accomplishment enough to slow her down. Last summer, she was accepted into the doctorate program of the Esteves School of Education at the Sage Colleges in New York. The year before, she won a school grant called Sharing the Dream from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. She had also recently volunteered to co-chair the strategic planning commission for the school district.
All the while, Hochsprung maintained an air of accessibility. She was exceptionally tech savvy, updating her Twitter account with photos, articles about education, and updates from the school. “Gifted sounds like: 7-year-old to brother w/bloody nose, ‘You have to move because seriously, blood is a biohazard,’” she tweeted in late November.
The 47-year-old was also busy raising children of her own—two daughters and three stepdaughters. At the home of one of her daughters on the day of the shooting, her family told The New York Times they were “just waiting” for news. Tragically, the news that arrived only confirmed their worst fears.