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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.
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