Hope in the Mourning
There is no formal memorial here to the five children killed in 1989 by an angry loner who sprayed 107 rounds of ammunition from an assault rifle over their elementary school playground. Yet, the legacy of the tragedy lives on in a patchwork of efforts and events that continue to educate, inspire, sadden, and touch thousands of lives in this growing central California community and beyond.
Make no mistake, the shootings at Cleveland Elementary School are still claiming casualties. Just this spring, the father of one victim died of health complications brought on by the heavy drinking that his widow says began after their daughter's death.
But Stockton has also mined hope from its loss. A teacher seriously injured by gunman Patrick Purdy created a museum for children as a gift to her grieving city. The incident's mark is also found in the greater Stockton area's improved emergency-response system and its stronger commitment to coordinating school and mental-health services.
"Communities that weather a tragedy need to know there's light at the end of the tunnel," says Patricia Busher, the principal of Cleveland Elementary, a post she has held since 1985. She rarely talks to the press about the incident, but she often speaks with school administrators elsewhere about safety and overcoming tragedy. "One of the ways to make sense of it is to make good out of evil, and that's what we did."
Stockton, a city of 235,000 about 40 miles south of Sacramento, is not the only community struggling to find the good in a very bad situation. Multiple-fatality campus shootings this academic year alone in Jonesboro, Ark.; West Paducah, Ky.; and Pearl, Miss., have claimed 10 lives and left 22 people wounded. And, just last week, at least one student was killed and some two dozen were injured in a shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore. (See story, Page 3.)
Recently, a class of deaf students at Stockton's Edison Senior High School who lived through the Cleveland Elementary shootings wrote to Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, where two students stand accused of killing four classmates and a teacher in March.
"It's been nine years since our tragedy, and we still remember it with horror," they wrote. "But we now also see the good things that surround us every day of our lives. We hope that these feelings of comfort come to you soon."
It all began Jan. 17, 1989, a day that started like any other.Second grade teacher Janet Geng was supervising the noontime recess while one of her two sons, a kindergartner, was in his classroom nearby. Her other son, a 3rd grader, had been sent back inside the school with his classmates to find a missing pencil. Third grader Lam Nguyen was starting his daily game of "end zone," which he likens to dodge ball.
At about the same time, Patrick Purdy, 26, was walking through a back gate at the school. He had an AK-47 assault rifle, two pistols, and a nightmarish plan that, to this day, nobody fully understands.
|The legacy of a playground shooting at Stockton's Cleveland Elementary School lives on.|
Within moments, Purdy, a former student at Cleveland Elementary, opened fire on the youngsters in the playground. When his shooting spree ended nearly two minutes later, five children were dead and 29 others were wounded. Purdy also lay dead, having turned a gun on himself. Geng's sons were uninjured, but a bullet had shattered the femur in her left leg.
Lam Nguyen, meanwhile, lay huddled for 30 minutes on the floor of his classroom, where he ran during the shooting. "I was running as fast as I could," he recalls, "and a bullet hit the wall a couple of inches in front of my face. If I ran faster ..." He stops.
"I got under the table and prayed for the safety of the children on the playground. I was there a half-hour," Lam, who is now 18, says.
The Stockton tragedy was one of four campus attacks in less than a year in which troubled adults with firearms targeted children. It was also the deadliest.
"Our incident was the wake-up call," Principal Busher says. "It dispelled the illusion that school is sacred ground, which people sadly know as more schools weather such tragedies."
Almost immediately, policymakers responded.
The City Council banned certain assault-style weapons in Stockton within weeks of the shooting. And, after a divisive debate, the California legislature passed a law that restricted the purchase and ownership of some assault weapons.
Federal lawmakers were also spurred to talk about gun control, says Mike Beard, the president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, an advocacy group in Washington.
In 1994, Congress passed a law that banned possession of some semiautomatic assault weapons. And the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Law--named for James Brady, the press secretary to President Reagan who was shot and grievously wounded during the 1981 attempt on the president's life--required a five-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns. (A companion law mandating background checks of gun purchasers has since been found unconstitutional.) Stockton's shootings helped get lawmakers to the point of enacting the laws, Beard says.
"We'd been trying to tell people about assault weapons, and no one wanted to talk about it before then," he says. "This was hard to ignore."
Some in Stockton regret that the state and local gun-control policies have not lasted, or have been weakened by litigation. For example, legal challenges to gun-control ordinances in other California cities forced the Stockton City Council to repeal its assault-weapons ban earlier this year.
Where public policy failed to take permanent root, however, individual efforts have proved more resilient.
For example, Lam Nguyen is a senior at Stagg Senior High School in Stockton and plans to attend college in the fall. The teenage survivor of the shootings will rely in part on $2,000 he won from the Cleveland Children's Scholarship Fund, created from contributions that poured in after the incident. The fund awarded $30,000 this year to about 30 applicants.
And a fund-raising concert that was held after the incident has grown into an annual, five-concert children's series.
Perhaps most important, Cleveland Elementary is again a thriving haven for education, where stacks of boxes with new computers inside crowd the main office and reflect a school that continues to move ahead.
Most teachers who were at the school nine years ago are still here. "Everyone wanted to stay and heal together," Busher says.
But staying has meant dealing with the school's notoriety. Every time there is a shooting elsewhere, the principal gets as many as 20 phone calls from reporters seeking comments. The requests for media interviews are routinely denied. When cameras show up, her students are led back into the school.
"We've learned that when there's no photo op, the media goes away," adds Busher, who agreed to be interviewed for this story as long as her comments were limited to areas that she felt would help others. "The media gets the story and moves on, but the wound is repricked and people are left helpless."
Despite her cool attitude toward reporters, Busher, 53, is nonetheless a friendly woman who laughs with ease. A credentialed school psychologist who grew up in Stockton, Busher says the media should instead focus on schools' emergency preparedness, looking at their intercom systems, practice drills, and planning for psychological counseling for disasters.
She also advocates more coverage of the need to identify troubled youths and provide them with help that might prevent a tragedy. "You can see disturbed children early on," she says. "I believe our shooter fell through the cracks."
After eight months of difficult rehabilitation, Janet Geng returned to work at the school in the fall of 1989. Unable to stand for more than a half-hour at a time because of the pain caused by nerve damage, she left within a year.
But on the one-year anniversary of the shooting, Geng went to Washington to testify before the U.S. Senate on gun control. While in the city, she and her family toured the Children's Museum of Washington.
That visit changed her life.
"I had never heard of a children's museum at the time," says Geng, a 47-year-old Stockton native who now lives in the small city of Rogers, Ark. "It just fascinated me that they built a museum of hands-on activities for children."
She returned emotionally recharged and committed to building such a museum in Stockton in honor of the five students--all members of local Southeast Asian immigrant families--killed in the tragedy. It would be something good to come out of the shootings, she explains.
The effort grew increasingly ambitious, culminating in 1991 when the museum's board of directors leased a 22,000-square-foot warehouse from the city for $1 a year. The city's commitment has grown to include staffing and paying the museum's utility bills.
By 1995, when health problems forced Geng to leave Stockton, the project had built enough momentum to become a regional attraction that today draws 38,000 visitors a year. Some even credit the facility with drawing people to a downtown that has largely languished while development booms in the city's outskirts.
The museum, one of the largest of its kind in the country, is a giant hands-on playground where children can do adult things without getting in trouble. They climb into the driver's seat of a police cruiser, and push buttons on calculators at the bank. They load shopping carts with jars of Gatorade or serve plastic hamburgers at the restaurant.
On a recent Thursday morning, Tammy Pattison plays waitress in the restaurant with her 4-year-old son Curtis. They drove 35 miles from Modesto to spend the morning here. As she turns to serve him a plate of plastic French fries, she finds that he has dashed to a police motorcycle.
It comes as news to Pattison that the museum traces its roots to the 1989 shootings. No exhibit in the facility explains its origin, although the story is told on a museum brochure. "It makes it mean even more now that I know the story," Pattison says.
Some people here want an official memorial. "You have to remember it. You have to tell it. And it has to be important," says lawyer Barbara Fass. She was the mayor of Stockton in 1989 and still runs the Cleveland Children's Scholarship Fund, which she helped start. "Those who forget history are bound to repeat it."
Geng says the museum is not the right place for a formal reminder, however.
"This was not so much of a memorial, but a living thing that other parents and children who were injured could come to and see smiles on the other children," she says. "They've seen enough sadness."
As for herself, Geng credits the museum with helping her reclaim much of what she had lost.
|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 26-31Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as Hope in the Mourning