This is an excerpt from “Trigger Effect,” an in-depth feature about the 1989 Stockton, Calif., school shooting and its lasting effects, from Sactown magazine’s December/January issue. Please read the complete story, by S.T. VanAirsdale, at Sactown’s website.
It’s a warm September evening in Stockton, almost the end of summer, and the sun slowly sets behind the curving steeple of the Central United Methodist Church. Just before 7 p.m., Judy Weldon stands at the whiteboard in Room 6, writing in her impeccable teacher’s print: “Agenda. Sept. 17, 2013. Welcome. Introductions. Housekeeping. History. Letter to Governor.”
The letters are already written for anyone attending tonight’s inaugural public meeting of Cleveland School Remembers, a group of six former teachers who watched, listened, and reacted in 1989 as a 24-year-old gunman named Patrick Purdy opened fire on their students in the first mass shooting of schoolchildren in America. Running, they grasped and sheltered wounded kids. They strained for order and solace in the lockdown after Purdy’s suicide. They navigated around and eventually identified the lifeless bodies of children who’d fidgeted into the thrall of a lesson or a story just a few hours earlier. They stood and struggled to comprehend or even know anything. Brought out to identify one of the dead children, neither Weldon nor second-grade teacher Julie Schardt could be absolutely certain that the girl with the head wound was their student Oeun Lim. “It was such a surreal experience,” Schardt says. “I remember it was cold, and I remember her red shoes.”
Much else has faded about the Cleveland shooting since it seized the American imagination—since Time grimly proclaimed “ARMED AMERICA” in a cover story three weeks after the massacre and, later in 1989, Esquire painstakingly deconstructed the last days of Patrick Purdy. No less a pop cultural eminence than Michael Jackson invited himself to Stockton on Feb. 7 of that year, where his attempts to cheer up the Cleveland community only meant more emergency vehicles, more police, more helicopters and more campus bedlam that just recalled the panic that Jackson had sought to assuage in the first place. The sights and sounds and mediated tragedy of it all receded as life went on in Stockton. Only in the year since Sandy Hook has memory emerged for these teachers as the mixed blessing of the Cleveland massacre, where a long-simmering synthesis of trauma and fury over slaughtered grade-schoolers has been channeled into action after nearly 25 years.
The group officially came together in February as a response to the shooting in Newtown, but not until September would they finally meet publicly at the church. “Help Us Reduce Senseless Gun Violence,” reads the front of Cleveland School Remembers brochures stacked up on the room’s back counter, wedged between fliers outlining California’s pending firearms legislation. Free booklets titled “A Citizen’s Guide to Lobbying” instruct readers how to lobby for bills in person and testify before committees. Letter campaigns are encouraged, which is in part how the teachers came to have their pre-drafted letters on the counter, a sheaf of photocopies addressed to Gov. Brown. “Support: LIFE Act Firearm Legislation,” it urges, citing four specific Senate bills awaiting attention from the governor. The letter attributes a 52 percent overall drop in California’s firearm mortality rate since 1990 to the gun laws enacted after the Cleveland shooting. “Nonetheless,” the correspondence continues, “almost 6,000 Californians are injured or killed by guns every single year, a number still unacceptably high. The measures contained in the LIFE Act are critical to closing loopholes and protecting our communities from gun violence.”
The audience is made up of 17 attendees including the teachers, who had hoped for a little bigger showing for their first gathering. But there’s a representative from San Joaquin Grassroots Action here to offer advocacy tips, and a delegate from the local Cambodian community association has dropped by with an offer to translate the Gov. Brown letter for his constituency. Another of the teachers, Adrienne Egeland, proposes collecting a list of gun-violence data and talking points to better engage with gun proponents. Weldon takes the floor, acknowledging mental illness, gangs, bullying and other frequent factors in gun violence before getting to their common denominator.
“We have chosen gun violence because we feel we can make a difference soon with the gun violence issue,” Weldon says, raising the group’s brochure over her head. She taps the air, harder and more assertively with every few words. “And that’s why we are working. We have seen the carnage that gun violence brings about. So our mission is not mental illness right at this moment. Our mission is: Let’s do something to keep the guns—the tools—away from people who shouldn’t have them. It’s the gun.”
The day after the church session, Cleveland School Remembers reconvenes privately at a member’s house. They discuss their recent progress—the mailing list sign-ups from the night before, the development of a short documentary about the group, a letter in support of a legal brief filed in Connecticut against the National Rifle Association, which is fighting new gun laws in the state after the shooting in Newtown. They characterize this as the work they couldn’t do in 1989, when they were responding to a spectrum of challenges just to get their kids and themselves through the school year. “You’d start a lesson, and then it would all fall apart,” says Egeland, who was a first-year kindergarten teacher at Cleveland in 1989. “I’d make my lesson plans: ‘OK, tomorrow, we’re going to do this and this, and this and this.’ I start this, and then we’d get a certain ways into it, and we’d have to stop for crying or anxiety. Or something would happen from the outside that would come in.”