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- June 14, 1993
- Vol. 39
- No. 23
Reading, Writing and Murder
A Survey of Death in America's Public School Shows There's No Sanctuary from the Culture of Violence
America's schools may never have been citadels of civility. But 50 years ago, the main disciplinary problems were running in halls and talking out of turn. Today's transgressions resemble those on a big-city police blotter: drug abuse, robbery and assault.
Not to mention homicide. According to a 1990 survey on Youth Risk Behavior conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, one of five high school students carries a weapon at least once a month for self-protection or for use in a fight. Last year the American Medical Association reported that guns had become second only to automobile accidents as the leading cause of death among young adults.
But beyond these fragments there are no national statistics on school violence. To gauge the dimensions of the problem. PEOPLE conducted the first comprehensive investigation of its kind, sending correspondents across the country to find out how many—and who—died violently in our schools during the academic year that is just ending. The tragic toll as this issue went to press: 31. On these and the following pages are stories about the year's victims and two experts' thoughts on how to return the classroom to a place of safety and learning.
'DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?'
On Monday, Jan. 18, Deanna McDavid was a few minutes late for her seventh period English class at East Carter High School in Grayson, Ky. When she entered Room 108 at 2:40, all but one of her 23 students were already seated, chatting happily among themselves. Senior Susan Coburn remembers Mrs. McDavid setting her papers down on her desk and telling the class, "Take off your hats and start reading." As the students opened their books, McDavid hung up her coat, sat down and began grading papers.
Gary Scott Pennington, 17, a senior honors student, was late too. "I glanced up and saw him walk through the door, but I kept reading," recalls Nathan Thompson, 18. Suddenly, an explosion shook the room. Coburn and her classmate Donna Klein jerked their heads up to see Pennington, a skinny boy with big glasses, holding a smoking gun pointed at Deanna McDavid. He had fired once, but missed. "What are you doing, Scott?" she shrieked.
"Shut up, bitch," Pennington snarled.
As the class watched in horror, Pennington fired a second time. The bullet struck McDavid in the forehead. Susan Coburn saw a red, misty spray spurt from her head and settle on her light brown hair. McDavid, the 48-year-old mother of three, fell to the floor, where she curled up into a fetal position and died, a pen still clutched in her hand.
In the hallway, Marvin Hicks, 51, the janitor at East Carter High for nine years, heard the gunshots. He rushed to the door of Room 108, with history teacher Jack Calhoun. 51. right behind him. As Hicks opened the classroom door. Pennington turned and fired at him, hitting him squarely in the chest with a 38-caliber bullet. "Get up, Marvin!" Calhoun pleaded as he bent over the dying man. "I can't," Hicks gasped. "I'm shot." Then Pennington pointed the gun at (Calhoun's head. "Leave me alone!" the teacher shouted. "I'm helping Marvin!"
Pennington shrugged. He walked over to McDavid's desk and pushed her leg aside with his foot. Then he sat down on a filing cabinet beside her desk, facing his classmates. "Do you guys like me now?" he asked. "What's the matter, eat got your tongues?" He dumped a fistful of bullets on the desk and began counting them. "There's one for everybody," he said.
No one moved. Susan Coburn remembers thinking, "This isn't supposed to happen. This must be MTV." Donna Klein was sure it was a stunt, something to do with Mrs. McDavid's drama club. She tried to say something, but her voice was gone. "I was watching Mrs. McDavid's legs, wishing for some movement," she says. "Finally I said to him, 'Why are you doing this?" Pennington, his words partly inaudible, said he had to do it. Didn't they understand?
No one responded. For the next 15 minutes the room was utterly silent, and Pennington's own vitality seemed to ebb away. As he sat slumped, he signaled for four students to leave, then four more. The remaining teenagers, sensing he wouldn't shoot again, stampeded out of the room. Pennington followed them out. bumping into two Grayson police officers in the hall. "Did you do this?" asked patrolmen Keith Hill and Larry Green, who had been called to the school. "Yes," said Pennington. "The gun's on the desk."
For the students, teachers and families of Grayson, a town of 3,500 nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the killings have shattered the illusion that they were buffered from the violence that plagues America's cities. "There's no way you could have told me this would ever happen in a small town like this," says Mayor George Waggoner, who owns the Chevrolet dealership. "We're an extended family. Deanna taught two of my kids. Her husband, Danny [a boilermaker], trades with me. Our entire town is in shock."
Or perhaps even paralysis. East Carter principal Harlan Fleming immediately closed the school for a week. The Kentucky State Department of Education set up a crisis-intervention team that worked around the clock for eight straight days. On Jan. 22, the day of the funerals, every business in Grayson was closed and draped with black ribbons. The town siren howled at noon. Since then, two students have quit school. Dozens of students and teachers still regularly attend counseling. "Our innocence has been taken from us," says East Carter guidance counselor Joann McDowell. "The students can't sleep. They have bad dreams. They're scared. How can we assure these children they're safe? The answer is we can't."
McDavid's fellow teachers have been scarred too. When a classroom door accidentally slammed recently, one teacher thought it was a gunshot and became hysterical. "I look at my students now and sometimes wonder if one of them might kill me," says math teacher Ruth Ann Miller, McDavid's best friend and the person who broke the news of her death to her husband.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's clearer that Pennington had shown signs that he was disturbed. After he arrived at East Carter last August, he insisted on being called Scott, explaining that he haled his father, Gary, an unemployed laborer who supports his family on a monthly $300 welfare payment. Pennington was embarrassed by the family's dilapidated wooden house with no telephone, toilet or running water. He rebuffed any friendly overtures by his classmates. "Deanna was concerned about him. She wanted to help," says Miller. "When he wished her a Merry Christmas, she thought she was reaching him. Maybe she tried to get too close. I sensed he didn't want anyone too close."
Then, too, Pennington may have felt betrayed. Two weeks before the incident, he had received a midterm C in English. He went to McDavid to complain that it would be a blotch on the records—four A's and a B in his other classes—sent to Morehead (Ky.) State University, where he had been admitted on a scholarship. McDavid, according to Ruth Ann Miller, said she was sorry but that the grade would stand.
The eeriest supposition of all involves a book report Pennington did for McDavid on Stephen King's 1985 novel Rage. It is about a student who shoots a teacher in front of her class and then persuades his classmates that he is a hero.
Since the day of the killings, Gary Scott Pennington has been in jail, where he faces two counts of capital murder and 22 counts of kidnapping. Following a four-day hearing in April, District Judge William R. Woods ruled that Pennington will be tried as an adult. Public-defender Hugh Convery, Pennington's court-appointed lawyer, says he has seen his client smile only once, when his mother, Este, visited him in jail (it was his parents' pistol he used in the murders). "He scores way above average on IQ tests, but when it comes to emotional maturity and socialization skills, he's a zero." Adds Convery: "He barely talks to me, and I'm trying to save his life."
Pennington's classmates are still bewildered; all they have are questions. "Sometimes I think I'll be a hostage forever," says Susan Coburn, sobbing. "Someday I hope I can just say to him, 'We never harmed you. Why, why did you do this?' "
BILL SHAW in Grayson
- Bill Shaw.
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