5
No Exit: Mental Illness, Marginality, and School Violence in West Paducah, Kentucky

David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Katherine Newman

At 7:42 a.m. on December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal opened fire with a .22 caliber pistol on a prayer group gathered in the lobby of Heath High School, just outside of Paducah, Kentucky. The 14-year-old freshman killed three students and wounded five others, two seriously. After firing eight shots, Carneal put his pistol on the floor and surrendered to school principal, Bill Bond. The son of a respected attorney and a homemaker and brother of one of the school’s valedictorians, Michael Carneal shattered the peace and security of the tightly knit rural community of Heath, Kentucky, and shocked the nation with a brutal instance of school violence.

This chapter is a case study of the shooting at Heath High School, its antecedents, and its aftermath. It is based on more than 75 interviews with more than 100 individuals and participant observation in the school and the community conducted by the authors in May and June 2001. Information from this fieldwork is supplemented by local and national media coverage, police investigative materials, Carneal’s own writings, depositions from civil lawsuits, psychiatric and psychological evaluations of the shooter, and an interview with Carneal’s most recent treating psychologist, as well as materials from Heath High School and the McCracken County School District. We interviewed legal professionals from both the criminal and civil proceedings that followed the shooting, police officials, victims’ families, teachers, high school and middle school administrators, political and religious leaders in the community, parents, and students, both those present at the time of the shooting and those currently in the ninth grade at Heath.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence 5 No Exit: Mental Illness, Marginality, and School Violence in West Paducah, Kentucky David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Katherine Newman At 7:42 a.m. on December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal opened fire with a .22 caliber pistol on a prayer group gathered in the lobby of Heath High School, just outside of Paducah, Kentucky. The 14-year-old freshman killed three students and wounded five others, two seriously. After firing eight shots, Carneal put his pistol on the floor and surrendered to school principal, Bill Bond. The son of a respected attorney and a homemaker and brother of one of the school’s valedictorians, Michael Carneal shattered the peace and security of the tightly knit rural community of Heath, Kentucky, and shocked the nation with a brutal instance of school violence. This chapter is a case study of the shooting at Heath High School, its antecedents, and its aftermath. It is based on more than 75 interviews with more than 100 individuals and participant observation in the school and the community conducted by the authors in May and June 2001. Information from this fieldwork is supplemented by local and national media coverage, police investigative materials, Carneal’s own writings, depositions from civil lawsuits, psychiatric and psychological evaluations of the shooter, and an interview with Carneal’s most recent treating psychologist, as well as materials from Heath High School and the McCracken County School District. We interviewed legal professionals from both the criminal and civil proceedings that followed the shooting, police officials, victims’ families, teachers, high school and middle school administrators, political and religious leaders in the community, parents, and students, both those present at the time of the shooting and those currently in the ninth grade at Heath.

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence We interviewed Kelly Carneal, Michael Carneal’s older sister, but we were not able to interview either Carneal himself or his parents. However, we did review three lengthy interrogations of Carneal by the police, reports and interview transcripts written by Carneal’s numerous psychiatrists and psychologists, and an exhaustive 500-page deposition of Carneal taken in preparation for the civil suits. We were unable to interview other Heath students suspected by some in the community to be coconspirators in the crime, although we did read the police interviews and civil depositions they provided. The events discussed below have been variously described and interpreted by the people involved. While we have done our best to present what we understand to be the facts, school shootings, like other emotionally charged events, produce contradictory accounts that elude complete resolution. In this instance, civil litigation naming many of the people we interviewed was still pending on appeal at the time of our fieldwork, which discouraged the participation of a number of key figures who may someday be able to contribute their perspectives. We have deliberately refrained from using the names of those who were suspected of, but never charged with, participation in the shooting, even though their names were widely reported in the media. THE SETTING The Heath community is located a few miles west of Paducah, Kentucky, a city of approximately 25,000 that sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Paducah and Heath are in McCracken County (population approximately 65,000), one of the northernmost counties of the Bible Belt. Long a river town and transportation hub, Paducah is at the center of an economic area that stretches into several counties to the south, east, and west in Kentucky and north into Illinois. Its economic history has seen its share of ups and downs since World War II. Barge and tugboat industries and farming were once the backbone of the county, but the economy has diversified over the past half century. Today there are only a handful of farms in McCracken County, and the main industries include medical services, river shipping industries, railroad manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, paper mills, and the nation’s only uranium enrichment plant. The unemployment rate for the regional labor market area was 6.5 percent in 1997.1 Today, many of Paducah’s downtown storefronts sit empty, rendered obsolete by the strip malls full of chain stores and restaurants on U.S. Highway 60 near the interstate. The county’s Information Age Park, an industrial park wired for high-tech firms built in the mid-1990s, is only about 10 percent full. The opening of the United States

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Enrichment Corporation plant in the 1950s has brought a steady stream of engineers and professionals to the area, although many are sojourners who move on. It also employs some of the rural working class, the original “Heatherans.” This mix of locals and outsiders has been augmented in recent years by families moving out of the city and into newly constructed subdivisions. The Heath community was described as small and tightly knit by almost everyone we interviewed. “Everyone knows everyone else’s business,” and gossip travels quickly. Status is often measured by the number of generations one’s family has lived in Heath, and people know each other and their families by name. Strangers with northern accents and probing questions stick out, although since the shooting the community has become more accustomed to inquisitive outsiders. The high school is in many ways the center of life in the Heath community. Community members who graduated decades before still congregate at high school sporting events, choir concerts, and band performances. Parents are heavily involved in students’ extracurricular activities, from sports’ booster clubs to selling refreshments and building sets for the school play. A year or two before the shooting, when officials proposed combining the three county high schools into two to provide more varied classes and more extracurricular activities, Heath residents were the most fervent dissenters. Old school loyalties run deep. With between 500 and 600 students each year, Heath is the smallest of the three county high schools, each of which is fed by a middle school and two elementary schools. The predominantly white county school system is separate from the Paducah city schools, which have a considerable black population. Heath’s curriculum, like its student body, is a mix of traditional and new. The school boasts three large computer labs, a computer in every classroom, and a classroom with videoconferencing equipment, as well as a greenhouse and an active agricultural education program. Students come from a wide range of economic backgrounds, from trailer parks to million-dollar mansions. Racially the school is almost entirely white, with a handful of blacks, Asian Indians, and Hispanics. Students score above state averages on the Kentucky Core Content Tests, and the dropout rate for the 1999–2000 school year was 2.9 percent.2 About 60 percent of graduating seniors go on to college, yet most remain nearby at Paducah Community College or Murray State University.3 Hence friends made in high school are friends people keep for life, especially among those who begin work right after high school. Like most Kentucky schools, primary responsibility for the school’s operations and curriculum lie with a site-based committee, which in the case of Heath High School is composed of the principal, two teachers, and three parents. The County School Board has a minimal oversight and funding capacity.

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Faculty at the school reported that the biggest discipline problems are tardiness, unexcused absences from school, and classroom disturbances. The current principal and assistant principal see about eight students per day for disciplinary reasons, although they estimate that about 5 percent of students create 90 percent of the discipline problems. Fights in school are rare, although according to students, there are several fights each year off school grounds to avoid stiff penalties for fighting at school. School discipline, including punishment, is detailed in a countywide Student Code of Conduct distributed to each student every year. Punishments range from a warning to “flex-time” detention to in-school detention to on-site alternative school to a central county alternative school for the most dangerous offenders. There were no violence prevention education programs for either students or staff prior to the shooting. As the principal explained, safety was a “nonissue” before the school shootings. While the school had emergency plans for firearms in the school, the plans were designed with an outside intruder in mind and were therefore not effective at preventing a school shooting by a student like Michael Carneal. MICHAEL CARNEAL The figure at the center of this story was a 14-year-old freshman who had been at Heath for less than a semester when the shooting occurred. However, his older sister, Kelly, was well known in the school community since she was an outstanding student (a valedictorian), an active member of the marching band, a regular contributor to the school newspaper, and a member of the choir. Kelly was a senior during Michael’s freshman year, and their parents, John and Ann, were heavily involved with the school through support of Kelly’s activities. They accompanied the band on field trips, helped at the concession stand, and in other ways demonstrated their support for the school. In this the Carneals were not unusual; relative to the high schools with which we are familiar, the level of parental engagement in extracurricular activities at Heath is exceptionally high. Parents know many kids other than their own, and parents know one another as well. Kelly joked that her parents were at the school more than she was. Participation in the church was equally important to the Carneal family, as it is to most of the families in the area, where religiosity is highly valued and the church is a center of social activity. John Carneal is a long-time unemployment compensation and injury lawyer, and Ann is a homemaker with some postgraduate education. Paducah is a mixed-class community in which professionals like lawyers are at the top of the social pecking order. However, they were not known as snobs. On the contrary, John Carneal’s practice was described to us as “solid” but not overly “flashy”; he mostly represents the hard-working

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence individuals who are considered the bedrock of the town. The Carneals were described by most people as sincere, generous, and actively involved in all aspects of community life, particularly the domains of greatest interest to their children. They opened their home to their children’s friends, who were frequent guests at the Carneal family dinner table. Their home was something of a hub for kids, some of whom were experiencing typical teenage conflict with their own parents. Indeed, one of the shooting victims spent time at the Carneal’s in part because she was at odds with her own parents. Hence the atmosphere surrounding Michael Carneal was that of a well-educated household with high expectations for academic performance and an older sister who had excelled. It was a sociable family that appreciated the importance of participation. The Carneals were, in this respect, proper and conventional, in keeping with normative cultural practices of the Paducah community. At home and with his family, Carneal appeared to be a fairly normal 14-year-old boy, but in other social contexts, especially the harsh social world of high school, he was uncomfortable and self-conscious, constantly looking for approval and respect from both youth and adults. Michael Carneal’s friends described him as a jokester and a prankster, always looking for attention and trying to win friends. His small size made him a frequent target of teasing and occasional bullying, although he was also known for teasing others himself. He stole CDs and other items and gave them to students at school because he thought it was cool to steal. He gave students his own possessions and told them they were stolen. Carneal downloaded pornography from the web along with pages from the Anarchist Cookbook and sold them or gave them away. He also stole hundred dollar bills from his father’s wallet and gave them to students at school. His teachers described him as intelligent, obedient to authority, forgetful, restless, and less socially skilled than average but someone who had friends. Although he tested at an IQ of 120, his grades slipped in the eighth grade, a slump that did not go unnoticed at home. In the fall of his freshman year in high school, his grades improved again to three Bs and an A. While a respectable performance, it may have been perceived as below his capabilities. Michael Carneal was in the marching band, a focal point of life for many students at Heath in part because it was a competitive activity that involved traveling to other schools. However, his career in the band was not altogether successful, since he and one other student were chosen to sit out of early competitions because the band did not have enough uniforms. Carneal was also interested in video games and computers and appeared to have spent much time in the middle of the night using the

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Internet. He was also an avid visitor to chat rooms and devotee of email. The contents of his hard drive, which were seized by the police, suggest that he made a habit of visiting web sites that were unsavory by local community standards, including some that were pornographic. It is not clear to us how far his Internet habits deviate from that of ordinary teenage boys in this respect. However, his taste for violence—including sites that included how-to instructions for making weapons or rehearsals of violent attacks—fell outside mainstream norms. Certainly his own writings—composed for himself and for classroom assignments—began to reflect a fixation with violence. Yet Carneal departs from the stereotype of the loner obsessed with computers in many respects. He had several friends from middle school and from band, including shooting victim Nicole Hadley, as well as friends from his neighborhood. These friends accompanied his family on occasional trips, and he slept over at the houses of the boys on occasion. At least in outward respects, and as far as his parents knew, he had friends. What he lacked was a crowd of his own. He was a fringe figure in a number of groups (e.g., band) but was central to none. He did not have very close friends, but it is not clear that this is atypical for 14-year-old boys. Nonetheless, Carneal was clearly searching for a crowd that would define him as more central and undertook various ventures (stealing, giving away pornography) in order to impress one group that seemed particularly attractive to him, the “Goths” or “freaks” as they are described by their detractors. A few of these youth wore long black jackets and other trappings of Goth clothing and makeup. In this and other ways, the group attempted to stand out from the conventional crowd at Heath. Kelly Carneal described these students as purposefully antisocial: they realized how silly the social pecking order was in high school and refused to participate in it. They were known for rejecting what they regarded as the pious attitude of the prayer group, but they never did more than grumble about it. While this group was certainly noticed for its “statements,” school administrators did not regard them as threatening or seriously deviant. Another way in which Carneal defies the loner stereotype is in his relations with girls. He had had a girlfriend and was friends with several female classmates. Prior to the shooting, he broke up with his girlfriend because he was interested in Nicole Hadley, one of the shooting victims. Freshman boys often find it difficult to locate themselves in the social landscape because they are the youngest in the school and cannot easily compete with older boys. Carneal’s slight stature did not improve his chances, but it is notable that he did indeed have something of a social life even though he was a freshman. Hadley took a particular interest in Carneal because she thought she could influence

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence him to “come to God,” a direction that he did not embrace. Hence it may be that what at least some girls wanted from Carneal did not match exactly what he wanted from them, leading perhaps to some frustration on both ends. In the months and year prior to the shooting Michael Carneal began to show signs of mental illness, but it was not diagnosed as such until after the event. However, he did accumulate five discipline infractions during his 71 days at Heath High School. First, he was accused of using a library computer to look at the Playboy web site with a friend. Thereafter, at his mother’s request, both he and his sister were forbidden from using school computers. Second, he was caught chipping at the paint on the wall with a leather punch tool and received two days of flex-time detention. Third, he was disciplined for scratching another boy on the neck while they were marking each other with pens. Fourth, he stole a can of food from the pantry in life skills class. Finally, Michael Carneal reported to the psychiatrists and psychologists evaluating him that he was caught in school with a pair of plastic “numchucks” he had purchased from a vending machine. These infractions represent a pattern of fairly minor behavior problems that may have first surfaced when Carneal was in middle school. Heath Middle School administrators reported having no problems with Carneal, although students in classes with him in the eighth grade reported that he had set off a stink bomb at school and that he had taken fish out of a fish tank and stomped on them. The current principal of the middle school confirmed that a stink bomb had been set off at the school but they did not discover who was responsible. Whatever difficulties he might have been experiencing in eighth grade (when his grades slipped) were mild enough to stay “below the radar screen.” As such he was never identified as a problem student. On the contrary, the school faculty who knew Carneal said they were completely shocked when they learned he was the shooter. THE VICTIMS Carneal appeared to have no cause for ill will toward his victims. They were not the students he described as having bullied or teased him. The school principal described all of them as humble and quiet students who did nothing to draw attention to themselves. Three were killed: Jessica James, a 17-year-old senior, played flute in the school band, was a member of the Agape Club, a Christian fellowship group, and attended Kevil Baptist Church. She was described by the principal as a strong student.

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Kayce Steger, a 15-year-old sophomore, played clarinet in the school band, played on the softball team, and was a member of the Agape Club. She was an honor student, worked at Subway, and attended 12th Street Baptist Church. She was a member of Law Enforcement Explorers Post 111 and hoped to be a police officer. Her parents reported that Michael Carneal had asked her out on a date a little over a month before the shooting. Nicole Hadley, a 14-year-old freshman, played in the school band and on the freshman basketball team. She was a member of the Heartland Baptist Worship Center and the Heartland Baptist Youth Group. Her family had moved to Paducah from Nebraska the year before the shooting. Nicole was a good friend of Carneal. They had “walked together” at middle school graduation, a custom of some significance in the community whereby graduates choose someone important to them to accompany them during graduation ceremonies. Nicole had been to the Carneal home and felt friendly enough toward Ann Carneal to confide her hopes that Michael would become more religious. Students at the school reported that Carneal probably had a crush on Nicole. Her parents reported that Michael Carneal called her almost every evening, supposedly to discuss science homework, but they believed he just wanted to talk to her. Although she was clearly annoyed with his constant calling, she always talked to him, believing that she could help him find God. Five other students were injured, none of whom had relationships of any significance to Michael Carneal: Shelley Schaberg, age 17, was described by the principal as the school’s best female athlete. Voted Miss Heath High School by the senior class, Shelley was homecoming queen. Though her injuries from the shooting prevented her from playing basketball, her college honored her basketball scholarship and she went on to play college soccer. Melissa “Missy” Jenkins, age 15, was president of the Future Homemakers of America. She was paralyzed from the waist down in the shooting. She and her twin sister, Amanda, were featured in Christian Woman magazine several months after the shooting. Kelly Hard, age 16, was a member of the softball team and the Future Homemakers of America. She transferred to the local Catholic school the year after the shooting. Craig Keene, a 15-year-old freshman at the time of the shooting, was a member of the Agape Club, the band, and the basketball team. Hollan Holm, a 14-year-old freshman at the time of the shooting, was a member of the Academic Team, the Spanish Club, and the Science Olympiad. In his valedictory speech at the class of 2001 graduation, he reminded his class that they had lost not one but two members on December 1, 1997,: Nicole Hadley and Michael Carneal.

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence THE SHOOTING According to accounts that Carneal gave to police and to psychiatrists, he stole his father’s .38 special pistol from a locked box in his parents’ bedroom closet several weeks before the shooting. He later told mental health professionals who evaluated him after the shooting that he considered using it to kill himself, but he did not want to hurt his family. He brought the gun to school, showed it to several classmates, and told them he wanted to sell it. An older boy heard that he had the gun and told Carneal that if he did not sell it to him, he would tell the police. Carneal gave him the gun with the promise that the boy would pay him later, but he never did. The shooting took place on the Monday after Thanksgiving. According to Carneal, a few days before, he snuck into a friend’s father’s garage and stole a .22 pistol and ammunition, the gun he ultimately used in the shooting.4 He had previously fired guns with this young man and his father. Carneal brought this gun to school the day before Thanksgiving break, again seeking to impress his classmates, but the ploy did not work because they said the gun was “small.” None of the students reported to school authorities that Carneal had a gun. They would later say that they did not think he had any bullets and did not think he would do anything with it. Carneal often had strange things in his possession and commonly showed them to people for the purpose of getting attention. The week before Thanksgiving, Carneal warned students that “something big is going to happen on Monday” and even warned some specifically to stay away from the school lobby. No one took him seriously. They thought at worst he would set off another stink bomb or a cherry bomb. Students reported that Carneal had made empty threats and issued warnings many times before. After school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Carneal went to a friend’s house, and they used the pistol for target practice on a rubber ball. On Thanksgiving Day, Carneal and his family, including both sets of grandparents, shared dinner in the early afternoon. Carneal then went outside to rake leaves and later rode his bicycle to the house of the friend from whose father he had stolen the pistol. After a brief conversation with Carneal, the friend went next door to a relative’s house to eat Thanksgiving dinner with his family. Carneal took this opportunity to climb into the garage through an open window, found the hidden key to the gun case, and stole a 30-30 rifle and four .22 rifles. He also stole earplugs and many boxes of shotgun shells and .22 ammunition. He carried the weapons home in a duffle bag on his bicycle, which he left outside under his bedroom window and came into the house. He went into his bedroom, locked the door, opened the window, retrieved the duffle bag, wrapped

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence the guns in a blanket and put them under his bed. He would later tell police that Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, was the day he decided to bring the guns to school.5 On Friday evening, Carneal, his father, and a family friend went to a basketball tournament at Murray State University. On Saturday afternoon, Carneal put the 30-30 rifle and two of the four .22 rifles in his duffle bag and rode his bicycle to the house of a friend. He showed the guns to this young man and his older brother, a senior at Heath High School, who cautioned the two boys not to get into trouble. In the evening, John Carneal came to the house to pick up his son and his friend, who spent the night at the Carneal home. Michael Carneal left the three guns at his friend’s house because he was afraid that his father would discover them if he put them in the car. The two played video games and watched television. Sunday afternoon Carneal did his homework and that evening stole two old shotguns from his father’s closet and hid them under his bed. Carneal’s family described the morning before the shooting as a typical Monday morning. Carneal told his parents and sister that the large bundle that he brought to school contained props for a skit he was going to do in English class that day. In reality, it contained the two shotguns and two .22 rifles wrapped in a blanket. He had the pistol, the earplugs, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his backpack. He drove to school with Kelly, entering through the back door. As he walked through the band room, the band teacher asked him what was in the bundle, and again he said it contained props for an English project. He walked to the school lobby where the Goths hung out before school. Each morning before school, a group of about 25 to 30 students gathers in the Heath lobby to say a short prayer. When the leader says, “Time to pray,” the students join hands, have a one to two minute prayer, and then go to class. The prayer group draws a wide cross-section of students. Some are athletes, many are band members, and many are freshmen. The small group of students that Carneal hung out with stayed to the side of the lobby and did not participate in the prayer group. When Carneal arrived in the lobby, he walked through the Goth group, and put his bundle down by the wall. One of the students asked what was in the bundled up blanket and Carneal again said it was his English project. Students later reported to police that one student remarked that the sound of the bundle hitting the floor suggested that it contained guns rather than an English project. After this remark, though, someone changed the subject, and no one talked to Carneal. Carneal later said that he was thinking, “You’ve got to do this for yourself.” He put his backpack on the floor, put in his earplugs, and put a clip in the pistol and pulled it out of his backpack. Just as the group was finishing its morning

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence prayer, Carneal slowly fired three shots and then five in rapid succession, making an arc around the lobby. He would later say that he was not aiming the weapon but simply firing into the crowd. Every bullet struck a fellow student. Kelly Carneal was not in the prayer group but witnessed the shooting. She said later that she would not even have recognized her brother if she had not seen his clothes and his face. His posture was different and he seemed larger than his normal self when he was holding the gun. Carneal told one psychiatrist that he felt like he was in a dream. Carneal stopped firing when he saw bullet holes in the wall and Nicole Hadley laying on the floor covered in blood, with another friend of Carneal’s calling her name. He put the gun on the ground. When the student leader of the prayer group came over to Carneal, yelling at him, Carneal reportedly asked the youth to kill him. The principal, Bill Bond, came running out of his office, pushed the prayer leader away and led Carneal to the office, putting him in the conference room with Carneal’s homeroom teacher, who reported that Carneal did not seem to recognize what he had done. He asked many questions, but Carneal would not answer them. The only thing he would talk about was the guns: where he got them, what kind they were, and where the ammunition was. He could not say what he had planned to do. When the school bells rang, students were told to go to class, and they did, including at least two of the victims who were wounded. One important question that still remains unresolved is whether other students were involved in planning the attack. Two days after the shooting, the county sheriff stated to the media that he believed other students conspired with Carneal prior to the shooting because, he reasoned, Carneal could not have used so many guns himself but must have anticipated others helping him. Many of the police interviews with Carneal and with witnesses were directed at determining whether students from the Goth or freak group were supposed to have picked up the other guns and joined Carneal. Carneal had four other firearms, multiple sets of earplugs, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition with him the day of the shooting. While he denied any sort of conspiracy in formal interviews with the police and his lawyer, he did reportedly talk to a police officer transporting him between one jail and another about how the group had planned the shooting and the other students were supposed to help him take over the school. As hearsay, these statements were not admissible in court and later Carneal retracted the statements, insisting that he had acted alone and that he had just been telling the police what he thought they wanted to hear. In addition, one of the suspected co-conspirators was seen staring at the crime scene and smiling immediately after the shooting. Some of the suspected co-conspirators were evasive in inter

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence played any part in the shooting. Carneal then said that he only brought up the movie because they asked him whether he had seen or read anything like what he had done. He volunteered that although he had seen it several years before, it had not made much of an impression on him. He added that, “it makes me mad” that people are trying to explain his actions in terms of a movie.16 Carneal had not heard of the shooting earlier that fall in Pearl, Mississippi. While there is clearly no one-to-one correspondence between exposure to violent video games and behavior,17 we agree with one of his psychiatrists that “Michael’s exposure to media violence can be regarded as a factor which contributed to the attitudes, perceptions, and judgment which led to his violent behavior.”18 One of his teachers recalled that Carneal’s solutions to hypothetical problems often involved “shooting someone with a bazooka.” Carneal and his friends discussed a number of violent fantasies that were in part based on things that they had seen. His email handle was “Loco,” which he said was based on a character in a movie. Thus while it would be far too simplistic to say that Carneal’s actions were caused by the movies that he saw, it does seem likely that Carneal’s thinking was more generally shaped by these influences and thus could be considered a contributing factor to the shooting. Adult-Child Relations Finally, while this is difficult to establish with certainty, as in most communities, it seems there is a profound disconnect between the experiences of adults and a small minority of disaffected teens in the Heath community. While separation from and conflict with adults is and always has been an important part of adolescence, living in a sports-oriented, tightly knit religious community could have seemed particularly constraining to a boy like Michael Carneal. For instance, he wrote in an email to an Internet friend from California the year of the shooting, “Our town really SUCK [sic]. Every year we have this big QUILT FESTIVAL where about an estimated 50,000 old bags in snitty cars that drive about 10 to an amazing 20 miles per hour come to town for a week and we all go [to] town and freak out the old lady quilters…. Okay, my point is that there is nothing here.” A point of pride and celebration among adults, the quilting festival seemed like an anachronism to a disaffected teen. Carneal was sent to 4-H camp, like many other youngsters in the community, but rejected the discipline and authority that came with it. He went to church and was confirmed, but he had on his computer a downloaded document called “Bible Inconsistencies” which discussed how different passages of the Bible contradicted one another.

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Paducah and Heath probably have as much or more social capital as any town in America: there are dozens of clubs and activities that bring children and adults together. This is an enormous source of pride and enjoyment for many in the town, youth as well as adults. At the same time, these strong forms of community may be quite confining for youth who have other interests, by limiting the array of social options available. The broader community’s interest in the fortune of the sports teams at the school may have also reinforced the perceived permanence of a social hierarchy in which Carneal, as a marginal band member, was near the bottom. No questions were ever posed to Carneal by local police and lawyers about his perceptions of the community, so it is difficult to evaluate with confidence how important this was to his thinking at the time of the shooting. CRIMINAL ADJUDICATION Carneal was charged with three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, and one count of burglary. He was 14 at the time of the shooting and was charged as an adult, as is customary in Kentucky when a youth of his age commits murder. Prosecution and defense prepared for a trial. Because the facts of the shooting were not in dispute, the major issue of contention was Carneal’s mental health. Mental health experts from both sides examined Carneal, and reached slightly different conclusions (stated above), but neither found that he was legally insane at the time of the shooting. Since an insanity defense was not possible and a trial would be an ordeal for the many witnesses, the defense agreed to a plea bargain the morning before the trial was to commence. Carneal pleaded guilty but mentally ill to all charges and received life without parole for 25 years, the maximum sentence permissible under law given his age. The mentally ill plea does not reduce Carneal’s culpability under the law, but it does flag him as someone who would need psychiatric treatment during his incarceration. Carneal’s plea was also pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford (known as the Alford plea), which allows the defendant to avoid admitting guilt while acknowledging sufficient evidence for conviction. The Alford plea is frequently utilized in sexual harassment cases to protect the defendant’s reputation. According to one of the Carneal family attorneys, employing the Alford plea in this case might be advantageous in the civil suits that were looming.19 Tim Kaltenbach, the prosecutor in the case, said that he accepted the deal because Carneal had agreed to the maximum sentence. Most of the people in the broader community with whom we spoke felt that the sentence was fair or had no opinion about it and were glad that it had been settled without a trial. However, some of the families of the victims felt

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence that they had not been sufficiently consulted by the prosecutor. They were also unhappy that the Alford plea did not require Carneal to admit guilt, and they argued that the resolution of the matter should have included Carneal taking full responsibility for his actions. There was also some sentiment among the families of the victims and others in the community that Carneal had received favorable treatment by the legal system because his father is a lawyer. In the end, he received the maximum sentence, but the perception of favorable or insider treatment was one motivation for the civil suits that were yet to come. COMMUNITY IMPACT Everyone that we talked to in Paducah emphasized that the community “came together” after the shooting. In a devoutly Christian community, much of the public emphasis was on healing and forgiveness. The day after the shooting, students at Heath High School taped a huge banner along the front entrance to the school saying, “We Forgive You Mike.” As one would expect in a community rarely touched by criminal violence, the Heath community saw the event as the result of a deeply troubled youth gone wild rather than any larger social problem. Almost everyone we talked to was unable to offer an explanation for the shooting and viewed it as something that could never be explained. The immediate and public emphasis on forgiveness put tremendous pressure on the families of the three slain girls, still reeling from the loss of their daughters. For them, a long period of introspection, guilt, and acceptance of personal responsibility on Carneal’s part is required before forgiveness can be dispensed. Short-circuiting this process made them feel they were being pushed to put the shooting behind them before this moral account was cleared. The families of the victims were showered with monetary gifts and sympathy, and friends and neighbors brought food. The day after the shooting, more than 200 students attended the prayer circle, and three days later 2,000 mourners filled the largest local church for the memorial service honoring the three slain girls. One student put together a web page honoring the trio, including photographs, tributes written by other students, and an address where donations for a memorial fund could be sent. An older gentleman told us that the spontaneous unity that emerged in the town after the shooting could compare only to the feeling of patriotism that he remembered as a child during World War II. A local business donated t-shirts with the slogan, “We Believe in Heath.” School officials remarked that the best decision they made after the shooting was to open the school for students, faculty, and parents the day after the shooting. This decision indicated confidence in the safety of the

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence school and allowed the Heath community to come together following the tragedy. Attendance was 90 percent. Counselors were brought in for the students, parents, and teachers. After a few days, school officials decided to ask counselors from outside the school district to leave. Students responded best to adults they knew well, and teachers became informal counselors. Over the next week, the school day gradually returned to its regular schedule and instruction resumed. Yet teachers reported that it was not until the next school year that the school returned to anything approaching normal. Many in the community united against the presence of the media, particularly the national media, who bore the double onus of being outsiders to the community and reporting on the worst incident in the town’s history. The national media outlets, in fierce competition with one another, staked out the school, the local barbeque spot, and the courthouse, generally disrupting already fraught daily routines. Even more egregious, in the view of many we talked to, was the badgering and harassment of students to give interviews, often without parental consent and sometimes without even the students’ own consent. One student described how a reporter refused to accede to his request not to be interviewed and chased him across the school parking lot. In one response to the media onslaught, neighbors who lived on the street of the Carneal home built a blockade to keep the media away from the beleaguered family. The Carneals were also a subject of much sympathy in the community. Many of those we talked to spoke movingly about what they imagined it would be like to be the parent of a child who had done something so horrendous, saying that in some ways it would be worse to be the parent of the shooter than of one of the victims. The parents’ previous reputation in the community and Kelly’s all-around success shielded the family from many of the negative judgments that otherwise surely would have emerged. Numerous people reported that on the morning of the shooting, before she learned the identity of the shooter, Carneal’s mother raced to school with blankets to see if she could help. The Carneals had roots in the community that went back several generations, and the family attended the church that Michael’s grandparents attended. For all of these reasons, many in the community, even those who did not know the Carneals personally, extended their web of empathy to include the Carneal family. Civil Suits and the Second Life of the Shooting The parents of the three slain girls had little sympathy for the Carneal family, however. They commented that the Carneal parents were given a

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence “free pass” in the community because of their social status and that the police and the prosecution had not investigated the case aggressively enough. According to the victims’ families, they hired their own lawyer in order to learn who was involved, why it happened, and to force Michael Carneal and his parents to take responsibility for his actions. They also hoped that the suits would help prevent future shootings by illuminating the causes of the Heath shooting and by putting a wide variety of people and institutions on notice that it was their responsibility to prevent them. Among those against whom they brought suit were Michael Carneal, his parents, and the neighbor from whom Carneal stole the guns; students who had seen Carneal with a gun at school before the shooting; students who had heard that something was going to happen on Monday; students who may have been involved in a conspiracy; teachers and principals at Heath High School and Heath Middle School; and the producers of the Basketball Diaries, the makers of the point-and-shoot video games that Carneal played, and the Internet pornography sites that he visited. The families felt that students allegedly involved in a conspiracy had not been fully cooperative with the police and that the suit would force these people to answer questions that they had not previously addressed. They also thought that Carneal’s parents had missed warning signs, such as towels over the vents, a history of vandalism, and the disappearance of family guns and knives that should have indicated that Carneal needed to be closely monitored or given psychological help. The complaints alleged that the schools had not noticed or addressed Carneal’s scholastic decline in the later years of middle school and in the months before the shooting and had not raised concern over violent stories that he had written. The complaint also faults the school for not formulating any plan to prevent school shootings, despite several past instances of school shootings in Kentucky. Not surprisingly, given the number of people sued, there was a significant community backlash against the families who brought the suit. The families reported receiving some hate mail, being stared at in public, and being avoided by some of their old acquaintances. One of the teachers sued was still in his teacher training program at a local university at the time of the shooting and successfully countersued. This story was brought up by many as an example of the excess and carelessness of the handling of the suits. Some thought that the families were not actually interested in discovering the truth and were simply trying to win a large monetary judgment. Others felt betrayed because they felt they had reached out to the victims in their time of need, only to have them turn around and bring suit. A large majority felt that the suits were inhibiting the already very difficult healing process, making it impossible for the community to move forward. Although a fair number supported the

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence entertainment industry suits, they thought that pointing fingers at others in the community was inappropriate. Michael Breen, the lawyer for the families, countered that it was exactly this unwillingness to pay attention to problems that had caused the tragedy in the first place. In Breen’s view “accountability is always painful,” but by bringing attention to those at fault, schools, parents, and the entertainment industry will become aware of their responsibilities, which may help prevent future shootings. Thus far the courts have found overwhelmingly against the victims’ families. With the exception of a $42 million dollar judgment against Michael Carneal himself, all of the other cases were dismissed by the judge before trial and are on appeal.20 The quick adjudication of these cases has reinforced the sense of many in the community that the suits were groundless, but the victims’ families say that there have been positive results from the publicity that their suits have generated. As an example, they point to the fact that some large national retailers no longer sell point-and-shoot video games, and education professionals are paying close attention to prevention of school violence. Preventative Changes at Heath High School There were a number of changes at Heath High School and Heath Middle School in response to the shooting. While the principal at the time of the shooting said that before 1997 school shootings were “not even on the radar screen” of issues that principals needed to worry about, elaborate mechanisms are now in place to prevent and react to potential shootings in McCracken County. Because school shootings are such rare events, it is very difficult to tell if these changes are “working” or even what sort of indicators might be used to judge their success. We limit our analysis here to what students, parents, faculty, and administrators think of their effectiveness. Beginning the day after the shooting and continuing to the present day, Heath has posted teachers at the entrances to the school in the morning to search students’ bags for weapons. Some of the teachers expressed considerable ambivalence about this role. One said that on the first day she apologized to each and every student for the invasion of privacy and lack of trust that the searches embodied. Students are also required to store their bags in their lockers once in the building. Over time, these procedures have become routine, and most students and teachers said that they make them feel safer, even if they do not think the searches are thorough enough to stop a determined criminal. Other changes, which originated from the school board and not the site-based committee, have met with a much less positive reception, in

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence cluding building fences around the school and requiring every student to wear an identification tag. The combination of the fences and the identification tags led a number of students to independently voice the complaint that the institution felt more like a jail than a school; one student dubbed it “Heathcatraz.” Given the inefficacy of the fences at actually keeping people out (as a number of students routinely demonstrated by going over or under the fences), students worried that in the unlikely event of a future shooting, the fences would do less to keep the shooter out than to keep innocent students in. School officials in turn noted that Carneal brought the guns in through the band room, and that the fences give school personnel needed control over access to the school. The identification tags were an object of particular bewilderment and outrage among the students. They accurately pointed out that ID tags seemed premised on the idea that outsiders were the likely source of problems, when, based on tragic past experience, it was students at the school who should be the primary concern. Some students and parents criticized both the identification tags and the fences as knee-jerk responses by the school board to give the appearance of action without actually addressing the issue. One change that was almost universally praised is the addition of school resource officers (SROs) to McCracken County high schools and middle schools. Before the shooting, there was little to no police presence at Heath, and officers were called to the school no more than once or twice a year. The school resource officer at Heath, who was hired in the August following the shooting, is a former Paducah city police officer who works for the school full-time and is in charge of maintaining security.21 Like traditional police officers, SROs carry a radio, gun, handcuffs, and a club, but they try to blend into the school by wearing a “soft” uniform of slacks and a collared shirt. In our observations, the SRO at Heath has successfully integrated himself into school life and has befriended a number of the students. Tips he has received from students have led to several arrests for drug and other contraband violations. While he related that initially some in the community were suspicious of an armed presence in the school, over time he has become an accepted, liked, and valued resource at the school. Both he and the former principal emphasized that students were more apt to trust someone who does not report directly to the school hierarchy, and as such the school resource officer is sometimes able to get a better sense of what goes on among students, especially less academic students, than teachers and administrators. Teachers were also very supportive of the resource officer, because it relieved them of some of the more serious discipline duties that they did not really want. One teacher said the SROs might be useful in preventing school violence: “An ID badge and a fence won’t stop a potential shooter, but a security officer might.”

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence The school also made some less immediately noticeable changes that administrators hoped would help address the type of social and psychological issues that prompted the shooting. The principal at the time and almost all of the 18 teachers that we spoke with emphasized that, even before the shooting, there was a focus among the teachers on the social well-being of their students, but that since the shooting the level of attention to social issues has increased, and more specific strategies were put into place to help teachers with this task. For instance, since the shooting more professional days have been devoted to training teachers to identify students who have serious emotional or psychological problems. Heath has also extended the freshman orientation period, and the academic advising time of the school day has been used to teach all students the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers.22 In addition, a half-time guidance counselor has been added to the staff who is responsible for counseling students and helping freshmen transition to high school.23 (The primary guidance counselor mainly does scheduling and college counseling.) Finally, an outside therapist visits the school at least one day a week to meet with students. Still Reverberating It is remarkable the degree to which an event that happened more than three years ago continues to affect the lives of many in the community, including those who were not close to the epicenter. For example, the head of a large business umbrella organization told us that major employers continue to have trouble persuading highly skilled workers to move to Paducah because of its association with the shooting. The youngest of the high school classes that attended Heath at the time of the shooting graduated in June 2001, but some of the siblings of those students who were in middle or even elementary school at the time report that they are afraid of going to the high school. There are enduring reminders of the shooting, such as a plaque in front of the school in memory of the slain girls and the ever-present identification tags, which ensure that each new group of entering ninth graders are made aware of the awful events of December 1, 1997. For the students who were freshmen at the time of the shooting, friends and classmates of both Nicole Hadley and Michael Carneal, the shooting was the defining event of their high school careers. On the eve of their own graduation three years later, they looked back at the shooting as an event that brought the class together in a bond of innocence lost, sparking a corresponding commitment to reject the petty meanness and exclusion common to adolescence. They addressed some of these issues head on, forming a thriving peer media

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence tion group. But the tragedy also left psychic scars on those closest to the shooting. Many students went to individual and group therapy for years after the shooting, including some who are still in treatment, and at least one went abroad for a semester in part to escape the memories of the horrible event. When asked what they regretted about their handling of the aftermath of the shooting, the school administrators noted that they did not give enough support to the teachers and other school staff. Teachers were expected to be there for their students but also needed time to grieve and heal. Many teachers have children of their own attending the school and live in the community, so they were some of the most affected by the tragedy. Of course the greatest loss is to the lives of those who were shot and to their families. The students who survived have been remarkably resilient. Of those who have had media accounts published about them, Melissa Jenkins went to college, Hollan Holm was a valedictorian, and Shelley Schaberg, unable to fulfill her lifelong dream of playing college basketball because of nerve damage that affected her hand-eye coordination became a varsity college soccer player. The families of the victims who died, by contrast, have been devastated by the loss of their daughters. Whatever the result of the civil suits, the families said, there will always be a huge void in their lives that nothing can replace. And the personal rejection they have encountered in the community as a consequence of the civil suits has left them isolated from some former friends. CONCLUSION In the course of our interviews with adolescents, we are reminded once again of how “adolescent society,” as James S. Coleman famously dubbed it 40 years ago,24 continues to be insulated from the adults who surround it. While many of the values of adults and children are shared and the hierarchies of the adult world are mirrored in the adolescent world, the social dynamics of adolescence are almost entirely hidden from adult view. The insularity of adolescent society serves to magnify slights and reinforce social hierarchies; correspondingly, it is only through exchange with trusted adults that teens can reach the longer-term view that can come with maturity.25 No one knows this better than the teachers at Heath; we could not put it better than the words of a beloved long-time teacher: “The only real way of preventing [school violence] is to get into their heads and their hearts. Everyone in the building needs to have one person on their side.”

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Newman is the principal investigator on this case study. We wish to thank Martin West, Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University for his help in understanding many of the theoretical issues raised in this case study. We also like to acknowledge the assistance provided by Margot Minardi, Department of History, Harvard University. NOTES 1   Greater Paducah Economic Development Council. 2   McCracken County School District. 3   McCracken County School District. 4   In a deposition taken in February 2000 for the civil suits, Carneal said that he had actually stolen this gun approximately a month before the shooting. It is not clear which account is correct. 5   In the same February 2000 deposition, Carneal stated that he had planned the shooting at least a month before it took place, perhaps contradicting his earlier account. We believe that this confusion reflects a series of decisions and uncertainties on Carneal’s part. He began planning the shooting before he actually decided to carry out his plan. Indeed, he testified in the deposition that after arriving at school the day of the shooting, he decided to leave the bundle of weapons in his sister’s car, but she reminded him that he was forgetting his “English project.” 6   The exceptions were the families of the victims, whose portraits of the Carneals were less flattering and the emotional timbre far more angry. This is not hard to understand given what these families have lost. 7   Interview with Kathleen O’Connor, October 23, 2001. O’Connor was Carneal’s treating psychologist when he was incarcerated in the juvenile detention center. 8   Dewey Cornell, “Psychological Evaluation of Michael Carneal,” September 3, 1998, p. 10. 9   Elissa P. Benedek, William D. Weitzel, and Charles R. Clark, “Report of Psychiatric and Psychological Evaluation,” July 17, 1998, p. 15. 10   Cornell, September 13, 1998, p. 13. 11   Benedek et al., p. 26. 12   Interview with Kathleen O’Connor, October 23, 2001. 13   Interview with Kathleen O’Connor, October 23, 2001. 14   Dewey G. Cornell, “Michael Carneal Evaluation,” February 1, 1998, p. 17. 15   Police interview, December 1, 1997. 16   Benedek et al., p. 12. 17   A review of the research by an expert panel of the American Psychiatric Association suggests that there is a link between video games and behavior. Cited in James Garbarino, Lost Boys (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), p. 115. 18   Cornell (September 3, 1998), p. 16. 19   If Carneal had admitted guilt, it would have been easier to pursue a wrongful death suit against him in civil court. 20   Since Michael Carneal himself has no assets or income, the judgment against him can only be collected if the victims’ families win a suit against the Carneal family insurance company, a case that is still pending at the time of this writing.

OCR for page 132
Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence 21   At some of the schools this also includes monitoring the security cameras, but the principal of Heath decided not to install cameras at the school. 22   Sean Covey. 1998. Simon and Schuster. 23   Guidance counselors are assigned by a formula based on the number of students at a school. An increase in enrollment at Heath is a central reason for the addition of the half-time counselor. 24   James S. Coleman. 1961. The Adolescent Society. New York: Free Press. 25   Of course, adults can also reify social hierarchies and often do. However, by virtue of their distance from adolescent society, they at least have the potential to provide guidance and direction, and thus it is with them that one places responsibility.