Somebody very similar to me committed the first school shooting of the modern era on January 29, 1979, when a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Ann Spencer shot up an elementary school across the street from her house with a gun that her father had given her for Christmas in 1978 just a month earlier.
I got mine for my birthday. When I say she was like me, it was eerie. Red hair…check. Freckles…check. Kinda petite…check. Sixteen years old…check. A hell of a shot…check. Didn’t like Mondays…Who does?
That’s a reason to have a forbidden pastry and an extra shot or two of espresso when you order your coffee, not use the elementary students lining up in the schoolyard across the street for target practice.
Brenda Ann Spencer killed the school principal and custodian, wounded eight children and a police officer was shot in the neck and seriously wounded, to brighten up her day.
A few years later, almost six years to the day, on another January Monday — January 21, 1985 – I was in the McDonald’s PlayPlace at Towne West Mall, close enough to Highway 54 to hear the Sedgewick County emergency vehicles scrambling from western Wichita when the Goddard, KS Junior High School shooting happened.
It had been under 15 degrees with a steady Wichita wind for two weeks. My son was a toddler and I hadn’t gone back to work yet after the birth of my second child. I had been cooped up with the world’s most active 18-month-old and a baby that never stopped nursing for two weeks in a thousand square feet. The day before I had gotten an insurance reimbursement check, and I was getting out of the house the next day, come hell or high water.
I got up early and started the process of getting two-under-two bundled up and buckled up. Once we were loaded up, I went to the bank, then the mall, and parked by the west entrance, by the PlayPlace and the mall presence of the Wichita police department. I got to the mall about 10:30, and by the time I got two kids out of car seats and in the stroller and all the BSE (Baby Support Equipment) that one felt compelled to carry at all times in the mid-80s lest yuppie-moms might set upon us and berate us mercilessly until we developed eating disorders it was probably 10:45 when I finally got inside…
When I got inside, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen since we had been stationed at Davis-Monthan, in Tucson. She had the same idea I did about breaking the “no junk food” rule and taking our kids to McDonald’s and using the indoor PlayPlace as a place for our boys to burn off some energy. We caught up a bit and took turns going to the counter while the other one watched the kids. She had just gotten her order and I was at the counter about to place mine when all hell broke loose. There were ambulances and police cars racing west down Kellogg/Highway 54. The police station in the mall emptied and their cruisers raced out of the parking lot.
That was a few minutes past 11:00. Less than ten minutes after the police raced out of the mall, they raced back, with reinforcements and locked down the shopping center. Because I was a medic on maternity leave, one of the female police officers I knew from answering the same calls a time or two in Tucson (her husband was in the Air Force, too) she gave me some information that wasn’t being made public yet…a Junior high student whose name we would later learn was Alan Kearby, had shot and killed the principal at Goddard Junior High and wounded three others, and he was still at large.
The entire state was in shock. How could such a thing happen in wholesome, all-American Goddard, where you moved if you wanted to get your kids out of Wichita and away from the perils of the city?
I have raised three and a half kids – the fourth one starts high-school next year – and I have never sent my children to school in the morning 100% confident that they would come home alive at the end of the day or that the news wouldn’t break into my day their school was a crime scene. That’s a hell of a fear to live with and has kept a Rosary In my pocket for 30 years.
We moved from Junction City, Oregon to Kansas City about a year before Kip Kinkle killed his parents and shot up the cafeteria of Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon on May 21, 1998, and killed two students. A few days later, my friend Carol called me and said “Guess what Jason and Nicole had to do at school today? A live shooter drill! Can you believe it?” The Lane County Public Schools didn’t waste any time developing safety protocols, I’ll give them that.
Do you want to guess what Kip Kinkle and Brenda Ann Spencer had in common? They both had diagnosable mental illnesses – not to stigmatize the mentally ill, they are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators – but Spencer’s father refused to get treatment for her, and Kinkle’s parents stopped his treatment after only nine sessions, declaring him cured…and the guns they used were gifts from their parents…In Spencer’s case, the month it was recommended she be admitted to a mental hospital because a school therapist was afraid she posed a danger to herself or others.
She wanted a radio. He bought her a gun.
I’ll say it…The adults have been failing since before I was one, and I’ve been pissed about it for thirty-nine years. I couldn’t get my own generation to do anything worthwhile about the damage bullets do using ballots, so I raised and educated one.
Tammy the Teacher