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132 A t 7:42 a.m. on December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal opened fire witha .22 caliber pistol on a prayer group gathered in the lobby ofHeath 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 attor- ney and a homemaker and brother of one of the schoolâs 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, Carnealâs own writings, depositions from civil lawsuits, psychiatric and psychological evaluations of the shooter, and an interview with Carnealâs most recent treating psy- chologist, 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, victimsâ 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. 5 No Exit: Mental Illness, Marginality, and School Violence in West Paducah, Kentucky David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Katherine Newman
133NO EXIT We interviewed Kelly Carneal, Michael Carnealâs older sister, but we were not able to interview either Carneal himself or his parents. How- ever, we did review three lengthy interrogations of Carneal by the police, reports and interview transcripts written by Carnealâs numerous psychia- trists 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 deposi- tions they provided. The events discussed below have been variously described and inter- preted by the people involved. While we have done our best to present what we understand to be the facts, school shootings, like other emotion- ally 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, Ken- tucky, 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 indus- tries include medical services, river shipping industries, railroad manu- facturing, chemical manufacturing, paper mills, and the nationâs only ura- nium enrichment plant. The unemployment rate for the regional labor market area was 6.5 percent in 1997.1 Today, many of Paducahâs downtown storefronts sit empty, rendered obsolete by the strip malls full of chain stores and res- taurants on U.S. Highway 60 near the interstate. The countyâs Informa- tion 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
134 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 origi- nal âHeatherans.â 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. âEveryone knows everyone elseâs busi- ness,â and gossip travels quickly. Status is often measured by the number of generations oneâs 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 com- munity. Community members who graduated decades before still con- gregate at high school sporting events, choir concerts, and band perfor- mances. Parents are heavily involved in studentsâ extracurricular activities, from sportsâ 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. Heathâs curriculum, like its student body, is a mix of traditional and new. The school boasts three large computer labs, a com- puter in every classroom, and a classroom with videoconferencing equip- ment, as well as a greenhouse and an active agricultural education pro- gram. 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 1999â2000 school year was 2.9 percent. 2 About 60 percent of graduating seniors go on to college, yet most re- main nearby at Paducah Community College or Murray State University. 3 Hence friends made in high school are friends people keep for life, espe- cially among those who begin work right after high school. Like most Kentucky schools, primary responsibility for the schoolâs 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.
135NO EXIT 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 âflex-timeâ 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 princi- pal explained, safety was a ânonissueâ 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 effec- tive 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 commu- nity since she was an outstanding student (a valedictorian), an active member of the marching band, a regular contributor to the school news- paper, and a member of the choir. Kelly was a senior during Michaelâs freshman year, and their parents, John and Ann, were heavily involved with the school through support of Kellyâs 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 exception- ally 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 Carnealâs practice was described to us as âsolidâ but not overly âflashyâ; he mostly represents the hard-working
136 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 inter- est to their children. They opened their home to their childrenâs 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 typi- cal teenage conflict with their own parents. Indeed, one of the shooting victims spent time at the Carnealâs 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 perfor- mance 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 uncom- fortable and self-conscious, constantly looking for approval and respect from both youth and adults. Michael Carnealâs 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 fatherâs wallet and gave them to stu- dents at school. His teachers described him as intelligent, obedient to authority, for- getful, 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 competi- tive 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 ap- peared to have spent much time in the middle of the night using the
137NO EXIT 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 teen- age boys in this respect. However, his taste for violenceâincluding sites that included how-to instructions for making weapons or rehearsals of violent attacksâfell outside mainstream norms. Certainly his own writ- ingsâcomposed for himself and for classroom assignmentsâbegan 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 occa- sion. 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 âGothsâ or âfreaksâ 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 de- scribed 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 atti- tude of the prayer group, but they never did more than grumble about it. While this group was certainly noticed for its âstatements,â school admin- istrators 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 shoot- ing 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. Carnealâs slight stature did not improve his chances, but it is notable that he did indeed have some- thing of a social life even though he was a freshman. Hadley took a particular interest in Carneal because she thought she could influence
138 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE him to âcome to God,â 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 motherâs 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 deten- tion. 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 ânumchucksâ he had purchased from a vending machine. These infractions represent a pattern of fairly minor behavior prob- lems 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 re- ported 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 âbelow the radar screen.â 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: âJessica 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.
139NO EXIT âKayce 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. âNicole 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 shoot- ing. Nicole was a good friend of Carneal. They had âwalked togetherâ at middle school graduation, a custom of some significance in the commu- nity whereby graduates choose someone important to them to accom- pany 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 re- ported that Carneal probably had a crush on Nicole. Her parents re- ported 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: âShelley Schaberg, age 17, was described by the principal as the schoolâs 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. âMelissa âMissyâ Jenkins, age 15, was president of the Future Home- makers of America. She was paralyzed from the waist down in the shoot- ing. She and her twin sister, Amanda, were featured in Christian Woman magazine several months after the shooting. âKelly 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. âCraig 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. âHollan 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 Decem- ber 1, 1997,: Nicole Hadley and Michael Carneal.
140 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE THE SHOOTING According to accounts that Carneal gave to police and to psychia- trists, he stole his fatherâs .38 special pistol from a locked box in his par- entsâ 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. Accord- ing to Carneal, a few days before, he snuck into a friendâs fatherâs 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 âsmall.â 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 âsome- thing big is going to happen on Mondayâ and even warned some specifi- cally 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 is- sued warnings many times before. After school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Carneal went to a friendâs 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 relativeâs house to eat Thanks- giving 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 weap- ons 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
141NO EXIT 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 after- noon, 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 friendâs 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 even- ing stole two old shotguns from his fatherâs closet and hid them under his bed. Carnealâs family described the morning before the shooting as a typi- cal 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 gath- ers in the Heath lobby to say a short prayer. When the leader says, âTime to pray,â 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 re- marked 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, âYouâve got to do this for yourself.â 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
142 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 wit- nessed the shooting. She said later that she would not even have recog- nized 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 Carnealâs 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 Carnealâs 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 shoot- ing, 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 antici- pated 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-
143NO EXIT views with the police. According to the prosecutor, there was never enough information to charge anyone else with a crime. Police interviews suggest that Carneal and his friends had fantasized about taking over the school or taking over the local mall. They discussed what they would do and what kind of weapons each would use and where they might get them. However, the group did not discuss any details, and Carneal stated that no one knew what was going to happen on Monday except him. He had warned people that âsomething big is going to hap- pen,â but would not tell anyone, including the Goths, what it was. Carneal may have held out hope that his friends would join him once he started shooting, a viewpoint that may have been influenced by his mental illness (to be discussed below). When pressed on the details of the plan, he admit- ted there were none and there was no way that his friends would know what to do if they wanted to join him. The McCracken County Sheriffâs Office and the Kentucky State Police never uncovered any evidence of any specific information being exchanged about a plan to take over the school. However, there is enough ambiguity in the situation to fuel community speculation that Carneal was not the only person involved or responsible for the outcome. CAUSES Why did Michael Carneal shoot eight of his fellow students, none of whom he particularly disliked? In this section, we evaluate the evidence for and against seven interrelated theories: family factors, gun culture and availability, bullying and teasing, peer and social relations, mental illness, exposure to media violence, and adult-child relations. Any com- plete account would draw on all of them. Ultimately, none of these theo- ries alone is completely satisfactory, since each points to necessary but not sufficient conditions. There are thousands of communities similar to Heath that have not suffered from lethal school violence. And of course it is also likely that entirely different factors may have produced similar tragedies in other communities. Nonetheless, because each of these in- gredients was part of what became an explosive stew, they bear further discussion. Family Factors On the outside, the Carneal family is the opposite of the stereotypical dysfunctional family. John Carneal held a steady job that provided more than ample income and allowed his wife, Ann, to stay at home to care for their children. Kelly Carneal was very successful, both socially and aca- demically. They regularly ate family meals together and went on family
144 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE vacations. Michael Carnealâs parents were heavily involved in the school and its extracurricular activities. Almost all of the people we talked with had nothing but positive things to say about Carnealâs parents and sis- ter. 6 There is no indication that the Carneals were abusive, either physi- cally or emotionally. Because we were not able to interview either Michael or his parents, our understanding of their internal family life relies exclusively on infor- mation gleaned from civil depositions, psychiatric and psychological re- ports, and our own interview with Kelly Carneal. Our portrait therefore cannot be considered definitive but is suggestive of some of the problems Carneal may have been experiencing as he moved down the pathway toward the shooting. In many respects, John and Ann Carneal were a model of concerned and involved parents who were highly supportive and involved in their childrenâs lives. However, there is also evidence to suggest that there were tensions caused by differences between the sib- lings, parental expectations for academic performance that Carneal was not fulfilling (particularly relative to his very successful sister), and a general sense (from his perspective) that all the attention went to Kelly. Carnealâs minor infractions and slumping grades had indeed generated concern from his parents, since this pattern of behavior was not in keep- ing with their expectations or family reputation. Perhaps for this reason, Carneal felt that he could not go to his parents for help with the social problems he was having at school or about his fears of imminent harm (described below). The Carneals were sometimes defensive on their sonâs behalf or per- haps disbelieving when their son began to misbehave in school. When he was disciplined for looking at inappropriate material on the Internet us- ing a computer in the school library, school officials reported that his mother did not believe that he was guilty. Carneal was also engaging in many behaviors in the home of which his parents were unaware. Evi- dence from the family computer seized by police showed that he had been up in the middle of the night using the Internet. The computer hard drive contained pornographic and violent materials, and Carneal had printed out this material on the family computer in the living room and sold it or gave it away at school. He had stolen his fatherâs guns and stored them and other stolen guns in his bedroom. Carneal had some of the familyâs kitchen knives under his mattress and reported stealing $100 bills from his fatherâs wallet. Critics might argue that John and Ann Carneal were losing touch with their son and that their lack of awareness of his activities was indica- tive of too much distance between them. It is important to note, however, that part of the adolescent experience involves growing autonomy and privacy. Parents who know absolutely everything about their teenagersâ
145NO EXIT lives would probably be regarded as micromanaging to the point of infantalization. It seems clear that the Carneals were trying to give their son some space to grow up. At the same time, Carneal himself was deliberately evasive and concealing in ways that were obviously effective. He did manage to hide from his family his own growing mental illness and his plans for violence. Despite his parentsâ involvement in activities at school, in church, and with friends, he made sure that they knew as little as possible about the things he did that had the potential to get him into serious trouble. Gun Culture and Availability Some have suggested that the gun culture of the South has played a role in some of the school shootings. This theory hypothesizes that guns and violence are culturally acceptable means of resolving disputes and solving problems in this part of the country and that norms about family honor and masculinity demand retribution for insults. As episodes of lethal school violence have spread to the Western and Northern states, this theory has waned somewhat in popularity. However, it should be examined in the context of this example. Although Carneal saw bringing a gun to school as a way of getting attention from his peers, we did not find evidence of a prominent role for guns in the local culture of the adult community or in the mainstream adolescent culture of the school. Hunting has declined considerably in Paducah and McCracken County as the area has urbanized, and many students we talked to had never held a gun. The older generation of adults, in contrast, spoke of storing their guns in their trucks during the school day in their youth so they could go hunting after school. One man described showing off his gun to other students in shop class when he was in high school 20 years ago. In contrast, our respondents said that, even before the shooting, weapons could not be publicly displayed in school, would be confiscated if found, and might even result in criminal penalties. Carnealâs family did not hunt and his sister did not even know that the family owned any firearms, although Carneal did first learn to shoot a gun at a 4-H summer camp. However, the availability of guns should be considered a contribut- ing factor in this case. First, a young person in this community who wants a gun can get one. Almost all of the students we interviewed said it would be easy for them to get a gun if they wanted one because either a family member or a friend owned a gun to which they could gain access. Most parents concurred. Over a period of less than two months, Michael Carneal amassed an arsenal of nine weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition by stealing them from his father and a neighbor. Second, the
146 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE availability and ubiquity of guns appears to have normalized guns in this community. This may help to explain why none of the students who saw Carneal with a gun in school the month before the shooting said anything to adults about it, even though Carneal told them that âsomething big is going to happen on Monday.â Bullying and Teasing When asked by police why he shot his fellow classmates, Carnealâs first response was that he was tired of being picked on. Then, and in later conversations with psychiatrists and psychologists, he detailed patterns of harassment going back to elementary school. Some were relatively minor, like having water flicked on him in the bathroom or being called âfour eyesâ (for wearing glasses). Others were more serious, including one incident in which he was allegedly hit on the back of the head, and another in which he was ânoogiedâ until his head bled. There was also mild hazing that came with joining the band. On one band trip, Carneal was rolled up in a blanket and hit with sock balls by older band members before a chaperone intervened. Carneal reported that he was picked on by older band members nearly every day. He also reported being called âgayâ and a âfaggotâ multiple times daily after the publication, in eighth grade, of a student newsletter that noted in the âRumor Has Itâ gossip column that he liked another boy. Numerous past and present students at the school said that they did not know anyone their age who was openly gay, and that it was a source of shame to have acquired that label. While such a stigma would be hard for an adolescent boy to manage in any part of the country, it is possible that the conservative social mores of the South make the accusation of homo- sexuality particularly difficult. Carneal told his therapist that this bully- ing had increased significantly after the publication of the column. This was one of the factors that precipitated Carnealâs slumping grades in eighth grade. 7 There is a considerable discrepancy between what Carneal reported about harassment or teasing and the views expressed in our interviews with his fellow students. From his classmatesâ perspective, Carneal was not picked on any more or less than other students, and he quite consis- tently picked on other students himself. Because he was loud, a prankster and a jokester, many of the other students thought he was better able to defend himself than other, quieter students. How do we reconcile these two images of Carneal? We would largely agree with one of the psy- chologists, who, after several lengthy interviews with Carneal and con- versations with a number of his friends at school, concluded: âMichaelâs experience of being teased and harassed at school stems largely from real
147NO EXIT events and mistreatments by his peers. However, it was also the case that, because of his personality and mental condition, Michael was sensi- tive to feeling mistreated, and may have reacted strongly to incidents that other students were able to tolerate.â 8 When asked by psychiatrists whether he thought about going to jail, he said he thought jail would be better than school because at least the teasing would stop. Because of his paranoia and general inability to read social cues (see the section on men- tal illness, below), Carneal probably magnified the impact of very real ill treatment such that it provided a motivation for the shooting. However, it is important to keep in mind that there is no known history of Carneal being teased by any of the students he shot in the prayer group and that the students he identified as his nemeses were not in the prayer group. We would suggest that, as Carneal himself has said, the shooting was not retribution for past wrongs done to him. Instead it was an attention-getting act that he thought would bring him the power and respect that he deserved. Peer and Social Relations Some have painted school shooters as children who are particularly socially isolated, have few or no friends, and have trouble making friends of the opposite sex. Michael Carneal fits this stereotype in some respects but not in others. Although many people said they considered him a friend, he thought of himself as someone without any friends, someone whom no one at school liked. He had an ex-girlfriend who said she loved him, even after the shooting. However, he had difficulty forming close relationships with others and was socially insecure about the relation- ships that he did have. He was not close to his sister or any relatives outside his immediate family. In middle school he considered suicide on a number of occasions, and in August 1997 he intentionally cut himself on the forearm but told adults the self-inflicted would was from a bicycle accident. Undoubtedly his perceived alienation from those around him should be considered one cause of the shooting. He also expressed considerable antagonism toward the schoolâs âpreps,â a loosely defined group of popular students. He had made buttons that said, âpreps suckâ and had written a story called âHallow- een Surpriseâ in which preps are attacked with grenades and a shotgun by the brother of a boy named Mike. Carneal said in depositions that he objected to the preps because he thought they acted as if they were better than other students. However, while there are some preps in the prayer circle, on the whole it seems that the prayer circle is heavily composed of students from the band, at least some of whom were also Carnealâs friends. As one respondent plainly put it, âIf he wanted to
148 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE shoot the preps, he would have been upstairs where the preps [hang out].â As is true in most high schools, there is social antagonism at Heath between groups whose values or styles clash. The Goth crowd into which Carneal hoped to become better integrated expressed derision toward the âgoodâ kids in the prayer circle. Some students said that the group was hypocritical, because they professed beliefs that they did not live up to. (One respondent cited an example of members of the group signing a pledge to wait for sex until after marriage, even though a number of the signatories were already known to have had sex.) The Goth group sig- naled its disdain by intentionally talking loudly during prayer time. One friend reported to the police that Carneal had said the previous Wednes- day âthat the hypocrites in prayer group were going to go down, âcause he was going to bring âem down.â At the same time, it is important to remember that Carneal was friends with at least some of the students in the prayer circle through band, including Nicole Hadley, whom he later described as his closest friend. Statements by Carneal and others in the psychiatric and psychologi- cal reports indicate that he was envious of other students who were more successful socially and academically, and this broad category included both preps and âgood kids.â Some of these feelings seem to have been exacerbated by Carnealâs perceived inadequacy in comparison to his sis- ter, who was a school valedictorian and popular among her peers. She was also a senior member of the band, whereas Carneal was one of only two of the 62 members who initially did not march in the band competi- tion because there were not enough uniforms. This was a source of em- barrassment to him, but later two students dropped out, and Carneal was allowed to march. Shortly after the shooting, Kelly Carneal told one of the psychiatrists involved in the case that Michael âtries to be as good as me, and he can never size up,â although she emphasized that she never felt she really knew her brother. 9 Carneal was occasionally asked by teachers and oth- ers why he could not perform as well as his sister had. To escape these unfavorable comparisons, Carneal apparently had begun to adopt an al- ternative identity that would protect him from these unflattering com- parisons. He told one of the psychologists, âEverybody talked how I was not like my sister, so I figured if I was the exact opposite, people would pay attention to me more.â 10 Carneal found a home for this opposite identity in the group of mostly older Goth students, who dressed unconventionally and flouted adult authority in dress if not in action. Some espoused anti-Christian atti- tudes. The leader of this group dressed in black with a long trench coat, painted his nails black, and was known for having a spork (a spoonlike
149NO EXIT fork) attached to a chain that he wore. In attempts to win approval from this group, Carneal stole $100 bills from his father and a fax machine from the home of a friend to give to them. At the time of the shooting, the police believed that at least some of these boys were part of a larger plot to participate in the shooting. Carneal and some of these boys did fantasize together about taking over the mall or the school, but there is no evidence that these boys thought that was more than fantasy or that the fantasy involved actually shooting anyone. One of the psychologists believes that, at the very least, the older boys manipulated and encouraged Carneal to engage in a variety of illegal activities. When he read the psychologists evaluation, Carneal said that while he agreed that he attempted to gain favor among this group, they did not encourage him in his actions. While it is always possible that Carneal is still protecting his former friends, the kid from the âgoodâ family was not simply a victim of manipulation. Instead, given the con- sistency with which we heard Carneal described as a âwildâ youth, one who stole regularly even in middle school, it seems more likely that Carneal was simply trying to win attention and approval from a new peer group. We have no way of knowing with certainty the internal dynamics of this group; particularly how, if at all, they contributed to Carnealâs decision to proceed with the shooting. Overall, it seems that Carneal was at a particularly difficult and fragile moment in the development of his identityâacademically, socially, and sexually. Coming from a high-achieving family, he seems to have been ambivalent about his middling academic performance, simultaneously striving to improve his grades from middle school and aligning himself with a group that rejected such standards. While he was becoming friends with the unconventional Goth group, he also retained video game-playing friends from middle school and made friends with band students, many of whom fit the âgood kidâ stereotype that he derided with his Goth friends. He had a crush on Nicole Hadley, who was in the band, a devout Christian who was trying to persuade Carneal to become more religious. Carneal believed that he did not have the status that he wanted in any of the social groups with which he was connected. He was not the stu- dent his sister was; he was the youngest, newest, and least-well known member of the Goth group; he was one of two students who did not get to march in the band; and his romantic interest in Hadley went unreturned. In short, despite the fact that he had a number of roles in different groups, he had not found a successful niche of his own. Given this context, it seems reasonable to assume that Carneal was neither targeting the Chris- tian students nor the preps who tormented him. Rather, the shooting gave him a very public way of asserting power and winning respect from all of the groups in which he felt only marginally included.
150 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE Mental Illness Michael Carneal had never been diagnosed with a mental illness before the shooting. After the shooting, a history of mental illness on his fatherâs side of the family was uncovered. When he was evaluated after the shooting by forensic psychiatrists and psychologists, two separate defense experts found him to be able to understand the consequences of his actions but mentally ill at the time of the shooting, while the prosecutionâs team determined that he was not mentally ill. He was diagnosed with depression (âdysthymiaâ) and schizotypal personality disorder by Dr. Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia and with dysthymia and âtraits of schizotypal personality disorder with border- line and paranoid featuresâ by Dr. Diane Schetky of Maine. Drs. Elissa Benedek, William Weitzel, and Charles Clark, hired by the prosecution, concluded that âMichael Carneal was not mentally ill nor mentally re- tarded at the time of the shootings.â 11 All of the reports, however, detailed similar odd behaviors, paranoia, and trouble interpreting social interactions correctly. Michael Carneal reported unreasonable fears. He thought people were looking at him though the air ducts in the bathroom, and worried that if he touched the floor in his bedroom, he could be harmed by assailants lurking under the floor. He often announced when entering his bedroom, âI know you are in here.â He often thought he heard voices calling his name or calling him stupid, but recognized that he might be imagining them. Before the shoot- ing, he told one psychiatrist that he thought he heard people in the prayer group talking about him. He feared going to restaurants because he thought his family would be robbed. As he, his father, and a family friend walked across a quiet college campus the Friday before the shooting en route to a basketball tournament, he remarked, âBoy, you could really get mugged out here.â According to the expertsâ reports, he never told his family about his fears because he knew them to be unreasonable. Some of Michael Carnealâs fears translated into strange behaviors. He covered himself with at least six towels whenever he took a shower and covered the air vents with towels as well. He often slept in the family living room. Knives from the kitchen were discovered under his mattress after the shooting. He reportedly hopped on top of the furniture to avoid touching the floor in his bedroom. While we cannot determine whether or not Michael Carneal met the diagnostic criteria for mental illness at the time of the shooting, we believe that his paranoia, fears, and misreading of social cues contributed to the shooting. They magnified the extent and meaning of the teasing and bullying that occurred at Heath High School (and probably occurs at all middle and high schools). He misinterpreted group fantasizing about
151NO EXIT taking over the school and the mall as a genuine desire to do so. Carneal also may have incorrectly assessed the willingness of his friends to par- ticipate once the shooting began. His social insecurities led him to believe that he was not respected by his peers and that bringing guns to school would earn him respect. His depression magnified these fears and may have affected his judgment. However, he was also able to conceal the extent of his fears so that even those living with him had no idea what was going on in his head. Evidently, this is not unusual among adolescents who later develop full- blown cases of psychiatric disorders, which are notoriously difficult to diagnose in 14-year-olds. He believed that anyone he turned to for help would be attacked by the same âdemonsâ who were, by this time, threat- ening him. This goes some distance toward explaining why he did not turn to his family for help. 12 Whatever its extent at the time of the shooting, Carnealâs mental ill- ness has intensified in the time since, developing into a full-blown para- noid schizophrenia, according to treating psychologist Dr. Kathleen OâConnor. After the Columbine shootings he fell into deep psychosis, blaming himself for those shootings, and twice attempted suicide. He has been extensively treated with medications for his psychosis, because, ac- cording to the psychologist, who worked in tandem with a psychiatrist in treating him, verbal therapy was not effective with someone whose prob- lems were so severe: âWhen someone is as paranoid as he became, talking just wasnât going to get to it. We had to get the psychosis into remission . . . with medication.â 13 OâConnor believes that mental illness was a primary factor in the shootings, that Carneal committed the homicides in part because he was unable to continue functioning in normal society, and that the shooting relieved him of the need to do so. Exposure to Media Violence Carneal was undoubtedly exposed to a variety of violent video games, movies, and imagery. He had been playing violent video games since he was a child, according to his reports and those of friends. These games included Mortal Kombat and MechWarrior, favorites of millions of Ameri- can teenagers. Carneal told a psychologist that he preferred âthinking gamesâ and frequently played chess with his father. 14 When asked in a police interview the morning of the shooting whether he had read or seen anything like his shooting spree, he mentioned the movie Basketball Dia- ries. 15 In the movie, the lead figure takes revenge on a Catholic school priest who had abused him by shooting the priest and a number of his classmates to the cheers of some of his friends. While this was widely reported in the media at the time, Carneal later denied that the movie had
152 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 any- thing 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, âit makes me madâ 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 expo- sure to violent video games and behavior, 17 we agree with one of his psychiatrists that âMichaelâs exposure to media violence can be regarded as a factor which contributed to the attitudes, perceptions, and judg- ment which led to his violent behavior.â 18 One of his teachers recalled that Carnealâs solutions to hypothetical problems often involved âshoot- ing someone with a bazooka.â 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 âLoco,â which he said was based on a character in a movie. Thus while it would be far too simplistic to say that Carnealâs actions were caused by the movies that he saw, it does seem likely that Carnealâs 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 experi- ences of adults and a small minority of disaffected teens in the Heath community. While separation from and conflict with adults is and al- ways has been an important part of adolescence, living in a sports-ori- ented, 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, âOur 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.â 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 âBible Inconsistenciesâ which discussed how different passages of the Bible contradicted one another.
153NO EXIT 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 communityâs 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 evalu- ate 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 pre- pared for a trial. Because the facts of the shooting were not in dispute, the major issue of contention was Carnealâs 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 Carnealâs culpa- bility under the law, but it does flag him as someone who would need psychiatric treatment during his incarceration. Carnealâs plea was also pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford (known as the Alford plea), which allows the defendant to avoid admitting guilt while acknowledging suffi- cient evidence for conviction. The Alford plea is frequently utilized in sexual harassment cases to protect the defendantâs 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 sen- tence 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
154 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 in- cluded Carneal taking full responsibility for his actions. There was also some sentiment among the families of the victims and others in the com- munity 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 commu- nity âcame togetherâ after the shooting. In a devoutly Christian commu- nity, much of the public emphasis was on healing and forgiveness. The day after the shooting, students at Heath High School taped a huge ban- ner along the front entrance to the school saying, âWe Forgive You Mike.â 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 Carnealâs 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 patrio- tism that he remembered as a child during World War II. A local business donated t-shirts with the slogan, âWe Believe in Heath.â 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
155NO EXIT 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 re- sponded 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 out- siders to the community and reporting on the worst incident in the townâs history. The national media outlets, in fierce competition with one an- other, staked out the school, the local barbeque spot, and the courthouse, generally disrupting already fraught daily routines. Even more egre- gious, in the view of many we talked to, was the badgering and harass- ment of students to give interviews, often without parental consent and sometimes without even the studentsâ own consent. One student de- scribed how a reporter refused to accede to his request not to be inter- viewed 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 commu- nity. Many of those we talked to spoke movingly about what they imag- ined 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 parentsâ previous reputation in the community and Kellyâs 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, Carnealâs 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 fam- ily attended the church that Michaelâs 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
156 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE âfree passâ 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 victimsâ 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 Carnealâs 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 Carnealâs 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 sig- nificant 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 teach- ers 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
157NO EXIT 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 ex- actly this unwillingness to pay attention to problems that had caused the tragedy in the first place. In Breenâs view âaccountability is always pain- ful,â 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 victimsâ 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 victimsâ families say that there have been posi- tive 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 ânot even on the radar screenâ of issues that principals needed to worry about, elabo- rate 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 âworkingâ 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 morn- ing to search studentsâ 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-
158 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 identi- fication tags led a number of students to independently voice the com- plaint that the institution felt more like a jail than a school; one student dubbed it âHeathcatraz.â 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 follow- ing 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 âsoftâ 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 commu- nity 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 some- one 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: âAn ID badge and a fence wonât stop a poten- tial shooter, but a security officer might.â
159NO EXIT The school also made some less immediately noticeable changes that administrators hoped would help address the type of social and psycho- logical 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 atten- tion 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 ad- vising 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.) Fi- nally, 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 commu- nity, 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 young- est of the high school classes that attended Heath at the time of the shoot- ing 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 ad- dressed some of these issues head on, forming a thriving peer media-
160 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 memo- ries of the horrible event. When asked what they regretted about their handling of the after- math 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 coordi- nation became a varsity college soccer player. The families of the vic- tims 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 âadolescent society,â 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 ex- change 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: âThe 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.â
161NO EXIT 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 as- sistance provided by Margot Minardi, Department of History, Harvard University. NOTES 1Greater Paducah Economic Development Council. 2McCracken County School District. 3McCracken County School District. 4In 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. 5In 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 Carnealâs 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 sisterâs car, but she reminded him that he was forgetting his âEnglish project.â 6The 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. 7Interview with Kathleen OâConnor, October 23, 2001. OâConnor was Carnealâs treating psychologist when he was incarcerated in the juvenile detention center. 8Dewey Cornell, âPsychological Evaluation of Michael Carneal,â September 3, 1998, p. 10. 9Elissa P. Benedek, William D. Weitzel, and Charles R. Clark, âReport of Psychiatric and Psychological Evaluation,â July 17, 1998, p. 15. 10Cornell, September 13, 1998, p. 13. 11Benedek et al., p. 26. 12Interview with Kathleen OâConnor, October 23, 2001. 13Interview with Kathleen OâConnor, October 23, 2001. 14Dewey G. Cornell, âMichael Carneal Evaluation,â February 1, 1998, p. 17. 15Police interview, December 1, 1997. 16Benedek et al., p. 12. 17A 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. 18Cornell (September 3, 1998), p. 16. 19If Carneal had admitted guilt, it would have been easier to pursue a wrongful death suit against him in civil court. 20Since Michael Carneal himself has no assets or income, the judgment against him can only be collected if the victimsâ families win a suit against the Carneal family insurance company, a case that is still pending at the time of this writing.
162 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE 21At some of the schools this also includes monitoring the security cameras, but the principal of Heath decided not to install cameras at the school. 22Sean Covey. 1998. Simon and Schuster. 23Guidance 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. 24James S. Coleman. 1961. The Adolescent Society. New York: Free Press. 25Of 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.