the United States. From a distance, there is nothing remarkable about the school, but near the front entrance that impression changes. The flagpole is surrounded by a large square wall made of brick, with a cement slab on top for seating. Mounted on one side is a small brass plaque with a three-line inscription: “John’s Bench/Friend, Teacher, Builder/John Gillette.” A few yards away is a well-tended garden with several stone walkways, each made of decorative stones with messages and designs made by Parker students. One corner of the garden, which was dedicated a year after the shooting, is dominated by a large gray stone engraved with these words:; “In memory of John Gillette, April 24, 1999.”
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After John Gillette’s death, people who live in this small and picturesque lakeside town have repeatedly asked themselves, “How could this horrible tragedy happen in such a good community?” “That’s the wrong question,” a school administrator told us. “The real question is, Why not here?” By that he meant that a school-related shooting like this, involving a troubled and impulsive boy with access to a gun, could happen anywhere in the country. What he also meant is that if we are to prevent future shootings, we need to reflect on how we care for our children, manage our schools and communities, and live our lives.
In this case study, we examine the events that led to the shooting death of John Gillette, with the aim of understanding the mix of individual, peer, school, and community factors that combined to create this tragedy. We also explore the aftermath of the shooting, focusing in particular on how people have come to explain the event and what they appear to have learned from it.
Our report is based on extensive interviews we conducted during a site visit to the Edinboro area during June 2001, which involved individual and group sessions with 32 students, teachers, school administrators, community residents, town officials, police investigators, lawyers, court officials, and journalists. We also interviewed Andrew Wurst’s parents, Catherine and Jerome J. Wurst. We learned that Andrew’s mother does not permit interviews with Andrew, and we did not ask for one. Based on advice from friends of the Gillette family, we also did not seek interviews with them.
We conducted all of the interviews according to procedures for the protection of human subjects approved by the institutional review board of the National Academy of Sciences. Everyone we interviewed, including public officials, spoke under conditions of confidentiality. Several minors participated in a focus group with informed consent from their parents or guardians, in addition to their own assent. We have not identified sources by name unless their statements were part of the court record.