Hope in the Mourning

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The legacy of a playground shooting at Stockton's Cleveland Elementary School lives on.

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.

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.

Chan Im sits under a picture of her daughter, Ram Chun.

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.

Greg Scala watches his son John play on a fire engine.

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.

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Pages 26-31

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as Hope in the Mourning
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