Hope in the Mourning
|The lessons from that day provided the impetus for a new regional emergency-response plan.|
Today, she works as the educational director of the Rogers Historical Museum in northwest Arkansas, and, in 1997, she was named museum staff member of the year by the Arkansas Museum Association.
"One thing I remember being asked was, 'Now that your life is shattered, what are you going to do?'" she recalls. "To me, shattered means you can't put anything back together. Patrick Purdy didn't shatter our lives. He tried, but we're better than he is. We won't let that happen."
Purdy's fatal visit to the school proved to be a turning point for the area's emergency-services community as well. In the months before the Cleveland Elementary shootings, Ron Baldwin, the director of San Joaquin County emergency services, had urged local officials to adopt new methods for handling multiple-trauma incidents.
But his effort to create a rapid-communication network to help rescue crews get victims to the nearest appropriate hospital received a luke warm response. "There was not resistance, yet they would say, 'We'll handle it like we handle everything else,'" Baldwin says. "But we knew it wouldn't work."
It was providence, he adds, that two hospital staff members and a paramedic who had received some training in the new system were on duty during the shootings. As a result, a local emergency-room nurse knew where to call and what questions to ask before directing helicopters and ambulances to hospitals up to 50 miles away.
"We had assurance that the hospital was ready with surgeons, nurses, and beds," Baldwin adds. "I feel confident that the services saved a couple of lives."
The lessons from that day provided the impetus for a new regional emergency-response plan. Using a $100,000 state grant, San Joaquin officials developed a program that now covers more than 10,000 square miles and nearly 3 million people.
The system, which has been used in recent flooding, calls for regular training with school staff members and uses state-of-the-art communications equipment to allow hospitals to hold conference calls for coordinating services.
"Cleveland was a watershed event for Stockton and the region," Baldwin says. "It validated what we were doing, and suddenly it became critical."
The shootings also exposed weaknesses in the ability of the 35,000-student Stockton school district and the San Joaquin County Department of Mental Health Services to jointly handle large-scale crisis counseling. All of the school's 1,000 students were offered help. That included up to 500 pupils who were on the playground at the time and their families.
"We had a mental-health department that didn't know very much about the school district, and vice versa," says Roger I. Speed, the director of county health-care services. "We stumbled around trying to coordinate for the first couple of weeks, and then realized we needed to put something together for the long term."
Eventually, a donated trailer was set up on campus to provide counseling services. Neighboring counties also volunteered therapists. In some cases, services continued for several years.
"It was like a concentric circle. You throw a pebble in a pond and a ripple goes out, and the closer you are to where the pebble hits, the bigger the ripples are," Speed says. "The kids on the playground that saw things or had friends shot or saw the gunshots ... that problem was tackled first."
Today, the district and the county mental-health agency operate two school-based day centers for severely-emotionally-disturbed students. There is also counseling tailored to the Southeast Asian and Hispanic residents of the city, as well as a preschool program.
Shortly after the incident, Cleveland Elementary School staff members were visited by teachers from a Winnetka, Ill., school where, in 1988, a woman armed with three handguns killed an 8-year-old boy and wounded five other children before taking her own life.
"For me personally, that was the turning point. They said, 'You're going to get over it,' " says Lori Mackey, who was teaching a class of deaf and hard-of-hearing students near the playground where Purdy opened fire. Mackey still teaches many of the same students at Edison Senior High, and it was one of her classes that sent the letter of support to the shooting survivors in Jonesboro, Ark., earlier this year.
That meeting provided the basis for the city's Critical Incident Stress Debriefing program, which pairs local professionals with peer counselors after crises.
"It was a ray of hope. They knew what we went through. They were OK," adds the 39-year-old Mackey, who would gladly do the same for other grieving teachers. "I'd always be willing to go somewhere else as proof that life goes on."
Before 1989, residents say, Stockton's sizable Southeast Asian community, which accounts for about one-quarter of the city's residents, lived in anonymity. The isolation masked their diverse cultures, as well as their poor living conditions and other social woes.
That changed--some say permanently--with the shootings, which claimed the lives of four children from Cambodian families and one child from a Vietnamese family.
Suddenly, counselors had to find ways to explain depression, psychotherapy, and other terms foreign even to refugees who had lived through wars in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. And local leaders had to learn the religious and cultural customs of the largely Buddhist community to organize funerals and religious ceremonies.
Such interest prompted the local media to find new angles on covering the community that had suffered most at Purdy's hands. About two-thirds of the 34 shooting victims were members of Southeast Asian-immigrant families.
"I wouldn't say that there's less prejudice here today, but publicity-wise and interest-wise, there's far greater focus on different cultural events of Southeast Asians than ever before," says Fran Gottlieb, a volunteer on the scholarship committee who, until recently, managed the local office of Democratic state Sen. Patrick Johnston. "They were fringe and we weren't paying attention to them."
Perhaps the best examples of that exposure's impact are the Park Village Apartments in central Stockton, and its manager, Sovanna Koeurt, a Cambodian mother of three sons.
Koeurt's middle son, Viseth, was in the class that was sent back into the school over a missing pencil. It may have saved his life, she says. She recalls running to the school with other frantic adults to find a chaotic scene as parents realized what had happened.
She still has the sheet of 39 names that she was asked to read aloud to Cambodian parents. "I read the list of students who were hurt, but not killed," she recalls. "You could hear everyone cry."
The skills and strength she showed that day helped define her as the community leader she became in the months ahead. She was awarded one of five full-tuition scholarships offered by the nearby University of the Pacific in honor of the children who died.
While working toward the bachelor's degree in education she earned in 1993, Koeurt also helped salvage the apartment complex where she and scores of other Cleveland Elementary parents lived. The complex was on the verge of closing in 1990, but Koeurt helped form a board of directors that eventually took ownership of the sprawling units for $1. After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guaranteed 15 years of subsidized housing, the board secured a $7.3 million loan to renovate the apartments in 1992.
Today, the tidy, two-story Park Village is home to more than 1,000 residents, who live in 208 apartments and have access to several educational programs in the complex, including English lessons, Cambodian literacy programs, and weekend computer and tutorial activities.
"One good thing about the shooting is that we let people know about ourselves and the conditions we lived in," Koeurt says, sitting at the sewing machine she uses to make her own clothes. "[Park Village] was a slum."
But while Park Village is a testament to the good that can come out of a tragedy, its successes cannot heal the deepest wounds.
This spring, 54-year-old Chun Keut died from complications related to heavy drinking his widow says began when their daughter Ram Chun, 8, was killed. Today, Keut is remembered in a memorial in the living room of his family's Park Village apartment, where candles flicker around his photograph and the offerings of food and incense that are part of the Buddhist religious tradition.
Inside her second-story unit, Keut's middle-aged widow, Chan Im, reflects on the loss of her daughter nine years ago and the recent death of her husband.
She and her husband moved to Texas from war-torn Cambodia in 1984, where her father, a former Cambodian soldier, and her mother were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Hoping to find more plentiful work, they moved to Stockton a few years later.
Seated on the floor in the front room of their sparsely furnished apartment, Im remembers Ram as nice and helpful around the house.
With her son Rann translating, she pulls her bare feet underneath her, turns a mournful gaze upward, and says, "Even though she was young, she obeyed her parents. She loved to write and read, and had lots of friends."
After the shooting, Im says that she participated in twice-weekly counseling sessions at the apartment complex, prayed often, and talked a lot with friends.
"The more she talked, the more she felt good," Rann says. "She needed company."
In one corner of the room is a large, black-and-white portrait of a smiling Ram, her dark eyes staring happily out over the living room. Beneath it is another picture. This one is a color photograph of Ram's solemn, bespectacled father. Friends say that he watched videotapes of his daughter's funeral for years. His wife says he began drinking after the shootings, and that was what led to his death.
"It was a great loss to my dad. He never had a sister, so he loved his daughter," explains Rann, who is tall, lean, and looks older than his 17 years. "Even though he cares about us, he drinks. She believed it contributed to his dying."
Rann says that his parents became extra-vigilant with him after the shootings, which is one reason that he says he has stayed out of trouble with gangs. Rann was a 2nd grader at Cleveland Elementary when his sister was killed. He is now a junior at Stagg Senior High School with plans to attend college near his home.
Today, his mother ventures little from Park Village, and only to visit friends or relatives nearby. She has never been to the children's museum built in honor of her daughter and the other children.
"From what I see, she's not very active. She's like a home person," Rann says of his mom. "Without the shooting, she would have been happy. Life would have been different. She would go out more. She would have more fun than she does now."
Through her son, Im sums up her feelings starkly: "There's some relief after nine years. But I still think about it."
Vol. 17, Issue 37, Pages 26-31