School Climate & Safety

Schoolyard Gun Spree Leaves 6 Dead, 30 Injured

January 25, 1989 5 min read

With press and wire reports

Shortly before noon last Tuesday, Lori Mackey, a special-education teacher at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif., herded 10 deaf students to the rear of her temporary classroom, desperately trying to shield them from the hail of bullets piercing the air outside.

A second-grade teacher, Janet Geng, wounded in the leg, recalled lying still on the school’s playground as asphalt fragments kicked up by bullets flew around her. She feared, she later said, that if she moved she would be shot again.

Ramon Billedo, a pupil at the school, recounted seeing a classmate felled by the rifleman’s shot. A teacher dragged the bleeding boy into the school building as the shooting continued.

In less than five minutes, the automatic-fire volleys of the lone gunman took a terrible toll: 5 pupils and the assailant himself were dead, 29 other pupils and one teacher were wounded, 15 seriously.

The Jan. 17 attack claimed more lives than any other known slayings on school property.

It was at least the fifth armed attack by an outsider on students or school personnel in less than a year and the latest in a rapidly lengthening list of tragic incidents in schools that have felled both students and employees. (See box below.)

‘Mass Chaos’

All five victims at the Stockton school, ranging in age from 6 to 9, were refugees or children of refugees from Southeast Asia. Half of the students wounded remained in critical condition late last week.

The rapid-fire rampage, executed by a young man in his 20’s identified as Patrick Edward Purdy, ended abruptly when he turned his weapon to his head and made himself the sixth fatality.

According to the Associated Press, Mr. Purdy, clad in a flak jacket and armed with a Soviet-designed AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle and two pistols, parked his station wagon across the street from the elementary-school playground shortly before noon and set it afire.

John Klose, spokesman for the Stockton Unified School District, said Mr. Purdy entered the school’s enclosed playground through a gate located near a portable building, as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders played outside.

“He was just standing there with a gun, making wide sweeps,” Ms. Mackey told reporters. “He was not talking, he was not yelling, he was very straight-faced.”

“There was mass chaos. There were kids running in every direction,” said Ms. Mackey, who had a full view of the playground from the temporary-classroom building.

Anne Ramacher, spokesman for the San Joaquin County Department of Emergency Services, said the gunman opened fire on students at the south side of the school, then walked to the other side of Ms. Mackey’s classroom building and shot himself with a pistol. Police estimated that 110 shells were fired.

An Unsettling Past

Why the gunman had attacked the children was unclear, police said. One police captain said Mr. Purdy, either 24 or 26 years old, had attended the Cleveland Elementary School from 1969 through 1973.

Police speculated that Mr. Purdy had a “military hangup.” In his Stockton motel room, where he had lived since Dec. 26, they found 100 toy army figures--plastic soldiers, jeeps, and tanks.

A troubled man with arrests for drugs, weapons charges, and suspected robbery, Mr. Purdy last summer easily obtained the rifle used by Communist-bloc armies by falsifying a certificate at an Oregon gun shop.

On the rifle stock, Mr. Purdy had carved the words “Freedom,” “Victory,” and “Hezbollah” the extremist Lebanese Moslem organization that supports Iran. On his camouflage shirt, he had written “PLO” “Libya” and “Death to the Great Satin” [sic].

There was also speculation over whether Mr. Purdy was deliberately aiming at Asian-American pupils. Almost 70 percent of Cleveland Elementary’s 970 students are Asian Americans, many from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Stockton lies in California’s Central Valley, one of the world’s richest agricultural regions, and has become a popular location for Southeast-Asian refugees seeking to start a new life.

The Washington Post reported that Mr. Purdy attended welding classes at nearby San Joaquin Delta College in 1987 and expressed to a classmate his resentment at the number of Asian students enrolled in the program.

However, the Associated Press reported late last week that police had dismissed theories about the gunman’s ethnic antipathies. A police spokesman said Mr. Purdy, a loner who tried twice in 1987 to kill himself while in police custody, seemed to have hated everyone.

‘The Real Heroes’

Superintendent of Schools Mary Gonzales Mend opted to keep the

school open for the week. School officials felt the Cleveland pupils needed access to professional help and to be surrounded by teachers and other adults they trusted, said Mr. Klose.

After few students showed up for school the day after the shootings, Mr. Klose said, Cleveland’s principal, Pat Busher, personally appealed to the parents, visiting them in their homes to reassure them of their children’s safety. On Thursday, 674 of the school’s 970 students were back in the classroom.

“From where we sit in Stockton, Pat Busher is all you would want in a principal and more,” said Mr. Klose. On the day of the tragedy, he said, Ms. Busher personally notified parents of their child’s death and visited all the children and one teacher who were hospitalized in seven institutions scattered miles apart.

She again visited the hospitalized children on Wednesday to pass out the many gifts and toys that were donated to the school after the shootings.

Mr. Klose also praised the 34 Cleveland teachers, one of whom remained hospitalized and several of whom pulled wounded and dying children into the building while the gunman was still firing. All but the wounded teacher were at their posts when classes resumed the following day, he said.

“The real heroes in this are the teachers,” said Mr. Klose.

Unanswerable Questions

At the state capitol, Bill Honig, California’s chief state school officer, questioned the easy access to machine guns.

“How many innocent children have to be killed before we crack down on the availablity of automatic weapons?” Mr. Honig asked.

Purchasers of semi-automatic weapons must only state, as Mr. Purdy did, that they have not been convicted of a crime and are not mentally ill. No one investigates the truth of the statements. No names of purchasers are divulged.

Immigrants questioned how such an incident could happen in the United States.

“We came here expecting peace and freedom,” Tocan Nguyen, a Vietnamese interpreter told The Washington Post. “In my homeland I saw one war after another, but this is just so ugly."--nm

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A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Schoolyard Gun Spree Leaves 6 Dead, 30 Injured

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