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November 1, 1998, Good Housekeeping, Look back in sorrow: in 1979, a teenage girl opened fire on a suburban San Diego elementary school;

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November 1, 1998, Good Housekeeping, Look back in sorrow: in 1979, a teenage girl opened fire on a suburban San Diego elementary school; today, as the nation reels from a rash of similar tragedies, the survivors still struggle to understand why it happened, by Tamara Jones, 

In 1979, a teenage girl opened fire on a suburban San Diego elementary school. Today, as the nation reels from a rash of similar tragedies, the survivors still struggle to understand why it happened.

THE SMALL BRONZE PLAQUE CAN BE FOUND at the foot of the flagpole, where it stands in mute and largely forgotten testimony to two men who died, it says, "in the service of helping others." There is no mention of the nine survivors who fell wounded on that violent morning nearly 20 years ago, and the incident has no name. There was no sense, at the time, that a certain history was being made, that what happened here would prove to be a harbinger of a nation's anguish and horror. It seems an incongruous place to find such a memorial, near sandboxes and a jungle gym, for this bloodsoaked ground was not a battlefield at all, but an elementary school.

The headlines and news bulletins have become numbingly familiar by now: Pearl, MS; Paducah, KY; Jonesboro, AR; Springfield, OIL School shootings around the United States have killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 40 in the last 12 months alone. Hit lists of teachers and classmates are circulated at middle schools, and deadly weapons are confiscated from book bags and lockers. What was once unimaginable-that a school, society's ultimate sanctuary, could become a killing field-is now a grim reality.

That wasn't the case on January 29, 1979, when Grover Cleveland Elementary became the target in the country's first high-profile school shooting, ground zero in an undeclared war in which children shoot children. The morning school bell had just rung in the quiet San Diego suburb, and children were trickling into their classrooms when a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Spencer took aim through the telescopic sight of her .22-caliber rifle from her house across the street.

Principal Burton Wragg was in the front office having a last cup of coffee with sixth-grade teacher Daryl Barnes when they heard what sounded like firecrackers going off outside. "Pop, pop, pop" is how Barnes remembers it. Wragg charged out the front door while Barnes headed for a side door to investigate. As Barnes looked toward the front of the school, he saw Wragg stooping over a crying child on the ground. Suddenly, the principal spun around and fell backwards into some bushes, a red stain spreading across his chest. Barnes grabbed a couple of children and herded them into the office, shouting at the secretary to call the police. He rushed back outside to pick up another fallen child and heard three more shots ring out, realizing as he scrambled back to safety that he was now in the sniper's sights. As Barnes tried to calm the panicky children, he spotted custodian Mike Suchar with a blanket in his hand, running toward Wragg. "Before I could scream a warning, he spun. I heard him say, `My God, I've been hit,' before he fell. Then a whole carload of children came up, and I was screaming, Get the car out of here, get out!" The car screeched away.

Several miles away, in the intensive care unit of Alvarado Hospital, the young charge nurse, Joyce Warren, heard the alarm go off for a "Code Blue"--an external disaster. She called dispatch and was stunned to hear the news: There had been a shooting at an elementary school, and casualties were expected. As police barricaded the neighborhood and deployed the SWAT team, reporters from the local newspaper began calling residences nearby. By chance, they reached Brenda Spencer, who readily admitted she was the one firing at the school; the rifle, they would later learn, had been a Christmas gift from her father. When asked why she was doing it, Brenda replied matter-of-factly: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." By the time it was all over, Wragg and Suchar were dead, and a policeman and eight children were wounded.

The smallest victims are grown now, their lives changed irrevocably. Dwindling enrollment forced the school to close years ago, and the district currently uses it for workshops. Brenda Spencer has reached adulthood behind bars and is next eligible for parole in 2001. Each time another school comes under siege, the unanswered questions are asked yet again: Why is this happening? How can it be stopped?

On that January day, DeLois Miller was dropping off her 9-year-old son, Cam, on her way to work. Normally, she let the fourth grader out at Cleveland's side gate, on the upper playground, but it was unusually cold that morning, so she drove Cam around to the front. She vaguely heard what sounded like a car backfiring as she pulled away. Christy Buell, another 9-year-old, had walked the couple of blocks to school. Her widowed father had toyed with the idea of letting Christy and her siblings play hookey that day so the family could drive to the snow-covered mountains, but had thought better of it. Now Christy was playing slip-and-slide on the frosty grass with a friend before the final bell. She heard a popping noise. "All of a sudden, it felt like my whole body was falling asleep," she remembers, "like pinpricks all over. We just heard someone shouting, `Run! Run!' I crawled up the pathway to the speech room. The teacher heard me crying and opened the door and pulled me in, and two more bullets whizzed by overhead into the door. I don't remember her name, but she saved my life."

Cam Miller was bewildered. Right after his mother dropped him off, he felt something like an electric shock next to his heart. He blacked out briefly. A 7-year-old gift ,saw him stumble and led him around the comer to a teacher. Cam saw Wragg and Suchar lying on the ground and thought, with childlike logic, that if he could just make it out of that square of sidewalk, "it will all go away."

It never did.

Today, Cam Miller is a handsome 29-year-old, a strapping man with scant resemblance to the chubby-cheeked boy with a bowl haircut whose class picture appeared in the newspapers above the word victim. Wearing jeans with a white sweatshirt that covers the fading scar a mere inch from his heart, he sits in the pristine living room of the house he and his wife bought recently, about a half-hour's drive from his childhood home. "I moved up here and I know, well, I think she wouldn't be able to find me," Cam explains. Brenda Spencer's father still lives across the street from the old school, and if Brenda were ever paroled, Cam figures, that is where she would return.

The bullet struck Cam in the back and exited his chest, missing any internal organs. Because he never had a chance to defend himself, however futilely, Cam grew up with an overwhelming fear of leaving his back exposed. "If I go somewhere like a restaurant, I have to sit where I can avoid having my back to the window," he says. As a child, he suffered terrifying nightmares of Brenda Spencer "popping out of the bathtub to finish me off." For a couple of months, he would wake up his mother once a night and have her walk him around the house to the back, where there was a wall of windows. Cam would insist on touching each pane of glass to assure himself that none was broken, that "she" hadn't slipped inside. "The fear I had was that I never saw her," he says. He was wearing a brand-new blue down vest and a matching shirt the day he was shot. Blue was Brenda Spencer's favorite color, he later heard. Blue made him a target. Even now, Cam Miller does not wear blue shirts.

He has seen Brenda Spencer a few times: first, from his hospital bed, as he watched the television news which showed police leading away a petite, freckled girl with long red hair and aviator glasses. Later, Cam went with his parents to court. The judge and marshals took Cam aside beforehand and told the little boy what to expect: She would be handcuffed, they assured him; he would be safe. "When I saw her, the look she gave me-her whole appearance was very evil and scary. She looked like the devil. Blank, empty stare. She just sat there and glared at me."

Brenda pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, eight counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and one count of assault on a peace officer. She was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Because there was no trial, few details about her family or her past came to light. The Spencers were divorced; Brenda and her older brother lived with their father. Kids in the neighborhood would later say Brenda had a reputation for torturing cats and had dug a series of tunnels in her backyard; adults would describe her as quiet and a loner. The year before the shooting, Brenda and a friend were caught vandalizing Cleveland Elementary--throwing paint in classrooms, overturning desks--but the incident was treated as a typical juvenile prank.

The San Diego County district attorney's (DA) office, whose investigation of Brenda Spencer eventually filled dozens of boxes, privately concluded that she was a sociopath. "We interviewed a friend of hers who admitted the two of them had been planning to kill someone for some time," says Andrea Crisanti, the deputy DA currently assigned to monitor the case in the event Brenda requests parole. "They decided they wanted to kill a cop, to see what that would feel like. Their first plan was to go up to a policeman sitting in a patrol car, and Brenda would go to the passenger window and distract him, and the friend would take Brenda's .22 and shoot him from the driver's side. Then they thought maybe they'd handcuff him to the steering wheel and shoot him with his own service revolver. Then they decided they would lure him into a public rest room--throw eggs at the car or something--and swing an ax and kill him there. This is the mind-set of Brenda Spencer."

Brenda has come up for parole twice, most recently last January. The district attorney's office contacted the victims it was able to locate and told them they could write impact statements. Cam decided to deliver his in person. He and his wife drove the hour and a half to the women's prison in the California desert, arriving much too early. "I was psyching myself up," Cam says. Once there, Brenda, on the advice of her attorney, decided to withdraw her bid for parole. "My wife saw her through the window and said, `There she is.'" By the time Cam looked, he saw only her retreating back and a glimpse of her red hair. He felt cheated. He had wanted to confront her, finally. There were questions he meant to ask: How could you do something like that? Why do you think you deserve a second chance when the principal and custodian can't have a second chance? Why didn't you just pull the gun on yourself?

Cam is a probation officer now. He conducts jailhouse interviews and prepares presentencing reports that help determine punishment for criminals. When another school shooting is on the evening news, he finds himself watching for the fearful faces of young survivors. "I think it's really sad all those kids are going to have to go through what I've gone through all my life," he says. Although the school offered counseling to the children at the time, Cam never went, and the shooting was a subject his parents couldn't bear to discuss, relying on time and their faith to heal the wounds.

But even now, DeLois Miller chokes up retelling the story. When two heavily armed boys in Jonesboro, AR, ambushed their classmates, when a teenage boy in Springfield, OR, raked his high school cafeteria with gunfire, whenever it happens again, Miller suffers flashbacks, "and I can feel what those other parents are going through." She returns to the old neighborhood occasionally and walks back up the pathway where she dropped Cam off that morning. Two small trees were planted in memory, of the principal and custodian, she notes, and over the years, they have grown, like her son, tall and strong.

In Kathe Wragg's backyard, there are trees heavy with unplucked fruit. Loquat, persimmon, tangerine, apple, orange, plum, apricot, peach. The yard was Burt's pride and joy. He could make anything grow. A frustrated farmer, he even kept hens so the family would have fresh eggs for breakfast. Kathe and Butt met when both were young teachers in San Diego. They'd known each other only a few months when he proposed on New Year's Eve. Kathe said she'd have to think about it for a day. "He had such an upset stomach, he told me, he couldn't sleep that night, not knowing what would happen. But of course I did say yes." When the babies came along, two sons and a daughter, Kathe stopped working. The family loved to go camping, and Butt had built a dune buggy with a Flintstones top so they could all race across the Anza-Borrego desert and count the stars at night.

In the fall of 1978, Butt took the job as principal at Cleveland Elementary. The school was just a short drive from his hilltop home. On the morning of January 29, 1979, he left, as usual, around 7:00 A.M. "I remember he was wearing a new shirt," Kathe says. Their oldest child, Penny, was in college and living on her own; Penny and Butt had spent the weekend painting her old room. Now Kathe began tidying up the mess. She had the Phil Donahue Show on in the background. A news flash came across the screen. "I can still see it: Sniper attack at Cleveland Elementary School," Kathe says. It didn't fully register. "I thought, Oh no, gosh, that's Burt's school. Burt'll take care of it." Minutes later, a neighbor whose husband was on the SWAT team came by. Butt had been shot, she told Kathe. The Wraggs' sons, both in high school, were being taken to Alvarado Hospital by their principal, and Penny was on her way too. At the hospital, Kathe was ushered into a quiet room.

"When I first talked to the nurse, I could see it in her face. I wanted to know if he suffered." Butt had been shot once through the aorta and died in the operating room. Tom, the middle child and older son, had "the worst time of it, I know, because he cried every night for three months," Kathe recalls. His father was killed just a few days before his seventeenth birthday; what was supposed to be a party became a wake. Kathe knew she had to steel herself. "I told myself, l just have to get a handle on this fast. I'm not going to be an emotional cripple. I'm going to accept this, because there's nothing I can do."

Two weeks before he died, Butt got up early on a Saturday morning, as he usually did, to put on the coffee and feed his hens. He and Kathe sat in the kitchen of the slumbering house, enjoying their private time. Kathe felt tremendous peace. "If I would die tomorrow, I would think it had all been just wonderful," she told her husband. Butt agreed.

It took Kathe six months to face the task of clearing out Burt's belongings. She kept his wedding stilt, a pen holder, and a painting some teachers had given him, an acrylic that reminds her of their trip to Newfoundland. "It took years to cut down on the groceries," she says. She wrapped herself in the protective cocoon of their many friends, "because I didn't want to be alone, ever." She hired a gardener to tend to the trees but let Burt's vegetable garden go barren. She keeps busy with volunteer work and travel. She dates, but she's never found anyone to love the way she did Butt.

When strangers meet her, they sometimes recognize her name and feel compelled to tell her where they were, what they were doing, on the morning of the shooting, as if time had stood still. Kathe herself wonders what ever became of Cleveland's children, the ones she still thinks of as "Burt's kids." Widowed barely two weeks, she took Valentine's Day candy and cards to those who were hospitalized, and visited the school, to try to assure the children that everything would be all right. She has seen the spot where Butt was gunned down, "because I needed to see it." It made her feel empty.

There are six grandchildren now, and they sometimes ask what happened to Grandpa. Kathe tells them the truth. The first time Brenda Spencer came up for parole, Kathe was never officially notified; she heard the news from a reporter who called for comment. She has since made it a point to track the case; when the hearing date was scheduled earlier this year, Kathe and her brother wrote impact statements. In hers, Kathe called Brenda "a pathetic, self-absorbed, bored, and uncaring thrill seeker" whose cowardly act left innocent families devastated. Life in prison, Kathe feels, is too lenient. "Isn't it funny? I don't feel anger as such," she insists, her blue eyes bright and piercing. "I dissociate myself. I can't control her. I can only control myself."

Kathe lives by herself in the old house, but she is not afraid. "I feel so safe. I kind of feel somebody watching over me." She vividly remembers hearing soft footfalls in the hall one night. "And I was thinking, Oh, you're back." In the sunroom, she is working on a jigsaw puzzle, which she finds soothing, the way all the pieces fit so predictably together.

CHILDREN SHOT. THE WORDS STILL MAKE JOYCE WARREN SHAKE her head. She is 56 now, the mother of three sons, still a charge nurse in the ICU at Alvarado Hospital, which in 1979 was little more than a community hospital and today is a large medical center.

The scene at the hospital that day was bedlam. Children were crying; others were too traumatized to even whimper. Hysterical parents began filling the hallway, shouting out names, demanding to know if their children were there. Warren tried to keep everyone calm. As soon as his mother arrived, Cam Miller wanted to know about the custodian, Mike Suchar. "Mom, he's dead, isn't he?" Cam asked; his mother didn't know. "Mom, I know he's dead," Cam insisted. "I was in the same ambulance." Suchar's body had rolled onto Cam when the ambulance raced around a curve. Cam thought that meant he might die too.

Of the injured, Cam was one of the luckier ones. At least three children had abdominal wounds, and a young policeman who had tried to get to Burton Wragg was shot in the neck and narrowly missed being paralyzed. After police arrived at the school, Brenda Spencer barricaded herself inside the house for more than six hours; when she finally surrendered, police found more than 200 rounds of ammunition in the house, which investigators described as filthy. During the siege, police commandeered a garbage truck and parked it in front of the Spencer house, trying to block the school from Brenda's line of fire. While buses evacuated the school from the back, police carried injured children to ambulances in the front. Christy Buell was the most seriously hurt, shot through the abdomen and in the buttocks. At Alvarado, she was whisked off to surgery, Doctors removed the bullet and repaired her intestine.

Christy's father paced the hallway with one of her dolls. "I knew the hospital routine," Norm Buell, now 63, says. He had lost his wife to leukemia when Christy was 3. The teacher who had dragged Christy inside to safety that morning would later tell investigators how the little girl had kept sobbing out the same words, over and over: "I want my daddy, I want my daddy."

In the ICU, Joyce Warren surveyed the tiny bodies on stretchers and had to fight to maintain her professional detachment: That could be my child, she thought. "Today, every time I read one of those articles about another shooting, it takes me back to that day. At the time, I didn't think it would happen again." Joyce is taking a quick break on the hospital's patio, dressed in a lilac top with a cheery daisy-covered smock over slacks. "Violence seems to be escalating in young children," she observes. "There seems to be this terrible anger, almost a hopelessness. We need to be trying to teach people to teach their children the value of a life."

Daryl Barnes agrees. Now 57, he teaches at another elementary school. "I remember a boy came to school with a .22 pistol. Had the gun in a backpack," Barnes says. "He was ten or eleven. They suspended him, slapped his hand a bit. I'm kind of old-school, and I believe we have rules and standards and there have to be consequences. If young people start making adult-type decisions, there should be adult-type consequences. People make choices." Still, Barnes adds, "a gun in the hands of a child is a poor choice by an adult."

The Brenda Spencers have lost their shock value for him now; he views violent children as the inevitable result of larger societal problems. "Everybody has their agenda, but I'm not sure the children are the most important thing anymore. We had an open house recently at my school. There are thirty-five kids in my class. Only twelve parents showed up." Strict regulations and fear of lawsuits have made disciplining troublemakers nearly impossible, Barnes adds, "and teachers tend to be afraid to take a strong stand."

The father of four children who are now grown, Barnes remembers coming home late the evening off the Cleveland shooting and finding them all waiting for him in front of the TV in the living room. "We talked about it as a family," he says, "and we just went on with our lives. That's what we tried to do at the school too. They brought in counselors from everywhere and encouraged the kids and teachers to talk about it." Barnes did not seek counseling after the Cleveland shooting but says, "Looking back, I see I should have." The Jonesboro incident in particular brought back sharp memories. "It's going to keep happening, till somebody takes responsibility. Because they're children and people revere children, it's hard to bring heavy consequences."

He forgives Brenda Spencer, he says, but believes "she's where she belongs for the rest of her life." Barnes's classroom was one of the rooms Brenda had vandalized the year before the shooting. Suddenly he remembers something about that episode: "I never told anyone about this before; I forgot about it completely until now. There was a picture of me in the room--a class picture, I guess it was--and evidently they had a BB gun, because someone had shot a hole straight through my forehead."

Even when red flags are apparent, acting on them can be problematic. At the San Diego DA's office, Andrea Crisanti and her colleagues sometimes find themselves debating: If DNA testing could tell you which child was going to be a sociopath, even with that certainty, what would you do? Crisanti cites a recent case involving a brutal 24-year-old killer whose troubled childhood was carefully documented by teachers and counselors--uncontrollable rage, repeated fights, lack of empathy for others. "When this kid was eight years old, his teacher wrote in his file: `If looks could kill, I'd be dead a thousand times.' This was when he was eight! He was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off."

The prosecutor, herself the mother of three young children, can quote from memory the words of one of Brenda Spencer's victims: "I felt a sting in my tummy and then I got sort of dizzy and I got tired so I laid down and then Mr. Wragg came up and he was talking to me and then Mr. Wragg jumped back into the bushes and then he laid down there and just kind of died." Her dusty files also contain the words of Brenda Spencer at the time, boasting about how easy it was to shoot children, that she liked to watch them squirm, and especially liked shooting the ones wearing down jackets so she could watch the feathers fly. "I don't know that she's ever expressed true remorse," Crisanti says. "I just look at her picture and I see empty. You think: I can't see a soul. There's nothing in there."

Nor does she have any answers. "You just constantly have to be aware of what your kids are listening to and watching--they pick up on incredible violence that we all know is in records and videos. You have to pay attention to who they associate with. Now it's not a question of whether it will happen again, but where."

When another school shooting is in the news, Daryl Barnes shares the story of what happened at Cleveland with his fifth graders, hoping the horror will make an impression on their young minds. He went back to the old school not long ago, for a teachers' workshop. "At the break, I found myself out by the flagpole," he recalls, "just looking at the plaque."

Christy Buell never left the neighborhood. Now 29, she is a sunny preschool teacher with lovely, startling green eyes and the kind of determination that helped her lose more than 100 pounds a year ago by walking up and down a mountain near her home. She lives with her father and brother in the house she grew up in and is reluctant, at first, to talk about the shooting, because she considers it just something that happened, "part of my life," and she has moved on. She keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles and photos, and still has the jacket she wore that day stashed away somewhere. "Six months after I got my jacket back, I found a hole in the hood," she recalls, surmising that a third bullet passed through it without hitting her. Her memories form a terrible collage: the principal moaning in the sticker bush; doctors cutting off her bloody Winnie-the-Pooh shirt; being unable to open her eyes until she heard her father's voice.

Christy had a colostomy for two months and was unable to return to school that year. Nerve damage left her leg paralyzed for a while, and she wore a brace: there was one to walk in ("I called that one the clicker because of the sound it made"), one to sleep in, and one that fit around her calf so she could wear shoes. She was in the hospital for 42 days and underwent two operations. When she came home, the living room was filled with mounds of toys and games from well-wishers around the world. The police chief visited and gave her a pin in the shape of handcuffs. The jeweler whose store was a few doors down from the Buells' restaurant sent Christy a diamond-chip ring. Her father insisted Christy choose three or four favorite toys and donate the rest to a home for abused and neglected children.

"We just kind of went on with life," Christy remembers. "Dad didn't want me to see a psychologist. He just said we'd deal with it as a family. Dad set the direction, and I took the path. We talk about it all the time. It's an incident that will never leave my mind. I'm not traumatized for life or anything. If I hear a loud bang or a car backfire, it gets my heart beating, but that's about it."

Still, she finds herself thinking about it in the abstract at the preschool where she teaches, especially when she's outside with the children. "I have often had visions of it happening there, and I think about what I'd be doing if it did happen." Mentally she plots an escape mute, how she will get the children to safety. The sandbox, she thinks; she will push them in the ground in the sandbox and shield them. Not long after Brenda Spencer went to jail, Wallace Spencer, her father, married her 17-year-old cellmate. They had a child together, and the little girl attended Christy's preschool. She resembled Brenda, Christy noticed. Christy would see Wallace Spencer occasionally when he came to pick up the child. Sometimes he would say hello, and Christy would politely answer, uncertain whether he realized who she was. One day, the little girl announced to Christy, "My sister's in jail." Christy mustered a benign response: "Oh, really?"

It bothers her that Brenda Spencer never has accepted responsibility; she has at various times alleged that police SWAT team members actually shot the children, or that she was on hallucinogenic drags at the time and prosecutors faked a clean toxicology report, or that she didn't understand the guilty plea when she signed it. Christy herself grew up in a home with guns, "but they were always locked up, and we couldn't get to them." Her father taught her to shoot when she was around 12 or 13, but "he taught us right and wrong. People should talk to their kids more, find out what's going on in their lives, and if you hear anything remotely strange, don't pass it up just because your life is busy. Talk to them about the safety of guns."

Norm Buell took Christy out target shooting a couple of months after she got home from the hospital. "I didn't want her to fear weapons," he says now. "I wanted her to understand that they're to be respected." He believes that when Brenda Spencer pulled the trigger "it was a frustrated cry for help .... She still probably can't tell you why she did it."

For almost 20 years now, Wallace Spencer has maintained a public silence about his daughter's crime. He and his ex-wife have attended Brenda's parole hearings, and prison authorities say Brenda receives occasional visits from members of her family. A couple of months after the shooting, Norm Buell found himself on Wallace Spencer's front doorstep. "I went over there father-to-father, hoping to talk to him. I wanted to tell him that I was a single father, too, raising four kids alone, and I know it's a hard job and a thankless job, and that I know he probably did the best he could, and that Christy was going to be okay." He could see Spencer through the screen door, sitting in front of the TV. "He wouldn't talk to me," Buell remembers. "He said to go away, and l respected that." He has long since lost his sympathy for the man. When another neighborhood is on the evening news, and he sees the stunned faces of parents in Jonesboro or Springfield or Pearl or Paducah, Norm Buell finds himself hungry for any scrap of information about the families of the children who kill, hoping, as he still does with Brenda Spencer, to make some sense of it.

Down the familiar street, the flag in front of Cleveland Elementary stirs just slightly in the breeze, and the sun glints off the tiny bronze plaque commemorating the bloodshed that was never supposed to happen again. The school itself seems bleak and forgotten, the laughter of its children long silent.
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on Jul 26, 13