On Friday morning, President Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor, on the six adults killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting in December.
Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach and Victoria Soto and 20 first graders were killed in the elementary school shooting. They were honored for their extraordinary commitment to the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School and for dedicating themselves to their students and the community of Newtown.
Obama presented the medal to their family members in a White House ceremony, read their names one by one and said they gave their lives to protect the children in their care.
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“And then when Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D'Avino, Anne Marie Murphy -- when they showed up for work at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14th of last year, they expected a day like any other -- doing what was right for their kids; spent a chilly morning readying classrooms and welcoming young students -- they had no idea that evil was about to strike. And when it did, they could have taken shelter by themselves. They could have focused on their own safety, on their own well-being, but they didn't. They gave their lives to protect the precious children in their care. They gave all they had for the most innocent and helpless among us,” Obama said. “And that's what we honor today: the courageous heart, the selfless spirit, the inspiring actions of extraordinary Americans, extraordinary citizens.“
Accepting on behalf of Rachel D'Avino were her mother, Mary D'Avino and sister, Sarah D'Avino.
Accepting on behalf of Dawn Hochsprung were her daughter, Erica Lafferty, and mother, Cheryl Lafferty.
Accepting on behalf of Anne Marie Murphy were her husband, Michael Murphy, and daughters, Paige and Colleen Murphy.
Accepting on behalf of Lauren Rousseau were her parents, Terry and Gilles Rousseau.
Accepting on behalf of Mary Sherlach were her husband, Bill Sherlach, and daughters, Katy Sherlach and Maura Schwartz.
Accepting on behalf of Victoria Soto were her parents, Donna and Carlos Soto.
President Obama said around 6,000 were nominated for the medal.
"A special note just to the families who are here from Sandy Hook, we are so blessed to be with you," Obama said. "I have gotten to know many of you during the course of some very difficult weeks and your courage and love for each other and your communites shines through every single day, and we could not be more blessed and grateful for your loved ones who gave everything they had on behalf of our kids."
Soto's family also attended the March for Change at the state Capitol on Thursday.
“I would give it all back to have my sister here, but to know I can’t have that, it is a great honor. I am so happy for her. I wish she was here to accept it, but we will be there to accept it and it’s amazing that she was given this and all the other teachers and principal,” Victoria's sister, Jillian, said during a rally on Thursday.
Victoria's mother, Donna Soto, said Victoria has always been a hero to the family.
“I was proud of her before this. I was always proud of this and everything she ever accomplished and I don’t for one minute doubt that she tried to save those kids with everything she had. She’s a hero. She was always a hero to us, and will continue to be,” Donna Soto said.
Four Newtown teachers and school employees were in the audience at the White House event.
Tom Kuroski, a Newtown High School teacher and president of the Newtown Federation of Teachers, will attend.
Joanne Didonato, secretary to Sandy Hook’s principal Dawn Hochsprung and president of the Newtown Federation of Education Personnel, will also attend.
The White House has also invited Kris Feda, a Sandy Hook teacher and math/science specialist who was in the main office in a parent meeting with principal Hochsprung, psychologist Mary Sherlach, and lead teacher Natalie Hammond, who was injured.
Feda is the teacher who others said took charge to move students and staff from the school to the firehouse.
Rick Thorne, a Sandy Hook custodian, went through the school during the shooting, locking any open doors and making sure hallways were clear and that staff and students were safely in their classrooms and will also attend.
Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a renowned pediatrician who developed a leading behavioral test for newborns, was also honored, as was former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford and a handful of others who were recognized for contributions to public service.
Obama said citizenship binds the nation together and captures Americans' belief in something bigger than themselves.