On January 17, 1989, a 26-year-old unemployed welder in Stockton, California, named Patrick Purdy drove his Chevrolet station wagon to Cleveland Elementary School, which he had attended two decades before. Stepping from the car, Purdy wore a flak jacket under a camouflage shirt and carried a Chinese-made semiautomatic AK-47 rifle. He walked through an unlocked gate to the school's playground and, after placing plugs in his ears, raised the gun and squeezed off 105 rounds into the roughly 300 children at play there. Within minutes, five children-all Asian Americans-lay dead, and 29 others were wounded, including a teacher. His mission accomplished, Purdy put a 9-mm pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
At the time, many people wrote the shooting off as an isolated event, a rampage by a lunatic. Born into a broken home, Purdy was an alcoholic, a drug dealer, and a male prostitute before his 18th birthday. Investigators described him almost as evil incarnate; his was an act of "festering hatred," they said, an attempt to lash out at minorities, whom he blamed for his joblessness.
But a decade later, the carnage in Stockton has been repeated several times in towns whose names are now shorthand for school violence: Springfield, Jonesboro, Paducah, Pearl, Bethel, Moses Lake, and, last spring, Littleton. Though the shooters in recent years have been freckle-faced teenagers who lacked Purdy's history of mental illness, they seemed to draw from the same well of twisted emotions. They were all outcasts seeking revenge for perceived slights and injustices. Some were racists.
Together, these miscreants have fueled the perception that schools are black-board jungles. Magazines, newspapers, and TV news programs have proclaimed each shooting an unspeakable act of brutality-and then talked about it endlessly in painstaking and melodramatic detail. "When Killers Come To Class" declared a 1993 U.S. News and World Report headline. "No one is immune," warns James Garbarino in his new book Lost Boys.
Thanks to the cold-blooded violence and white-hot hype, school violence emerged as one of the dominant education issues of the '90s. Each shooting was followed by its own cycle of shock, debate, and policy prescription. According to gun-control advocates, reaction to the Stockton shooting crippled the National Rifle Association in California and paved the way for legislation nationwide. Only a few months after Purdy stepped onto the Cleveland playground, the California legislature cleared an assault-weapons ban that had been stalled for years. A year later, Congress passed the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which set a maximum punishment of five years in prison for anyone caught with a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school. "People responded to the ferocity of the act," says Luis Tolley, western director of Handgun Control Inc. "Thirty-four kids-little kids-were shot by one man with just one gun in the space of a few seconds."
Solutions proffered after subsequent shootings ranged from the practical to the absurd. In 1994, one year after Scott Pennington, a high school senior in Grayson, Kentucky, shot and killed a teacher and a custodian, federal lawmakers mandated that schools expel any child who brought a gun to school. After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold terrorized Columbine High this year, officials of a Michigan gun-rights group offered free training for teachers, arguing that armed educators might have stopped the bloodshed.
Educators, meanwhile, have beefed up security in response to the tragedies and the public's fears. Some schools have taken simple steps, such as requiring identification badges for visitors; others have turned to Big Brother tactics, hiring more guards and installing metal detectors and hidden surveillance cameras. Launching an American Federation of Teachers' initiative in 1995 to make schools safe and orderly, Albert Shanker, the late president of the union, declared, "We view this as a central, life-or-death campaign for public schools."
These precautions have probably made schools safer at the end of the decade than they were in the beginning. Recent federal figures suggest school violence is down. But some of the most seemingly sensible safeguards against violence haven't always worked as planned. When 15-year-old Kip Kinkel brought a gun to his Springfield, Oregon, school in 1998, administrators sent him home, as required by the 1994, post-Pennington law. But Kip returned the next day with a rifle, a handgun, and a Glock pistol and shot 24 classmates, two fatally. "Kids who bring guns to school represent a threat," says Alfred Blumstein, director of the National Consortium on Research Violence at Carnegie Mellon University. "But I'm not sure that the best response is to ship them out the door and onto the street, where they might plan to do even more harm."
Whatever their effectiveness at stopping violence, some of these measures-arming school guards with shotguns, for example, as Los Angeles did-smack of overkill. Stockton-like shootings are incredibly rare. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, less than one percent of homicides and suicides among children occur on school grounds. Newspapers and television reporters often cite statistics from the National School Safety Center to support the notion that shootings "can happen anywhere." But the numbers from the federally funded center-it reports an average of 35 "school-associated violent deaths" per year since 1992-are padded by an assortment of teenage suicides and gang-related killings. The center's 53-death tally in 1993-the highest in its seven years of tracking violence-even includes a Little League coach hit by a stray bullet, a Las Vegas security guard who committed suicide on a school athletic field, and a 16-year-old student shot on the subway while on the way home from school.
There's no doubt that the '90s push for school safety has saved lives. But Purdy, Kinkel, Harris, Klebold, and the others serve as a useful reminder that schools will never be able to keep all the world's insanity at bay. And at some point, a school bristling with armed guards, metal detectors, and hidden cameras ceases to be a school.
Vol. 11, Issue 1, Pages 46-47Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Serial Killings