'It seems like we just went on with life' Violence: While survivors of an elementary school shooting 10 years ago will never forget what happened, the event has not consumed their lives

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GREENWOOD, S.C. - It has been 10 years since a deranged gunman killed two of her third-grade classmates at Oakland Elementary School, time enough for Kalynn Ruth to grow from the frightened child who ran from her reading table into an articulate young woman.

Ruth, now 17, is president of the Greenwood High School senior class, works on the school literary magazine and is bound for college. When people ask her if she is OK after the shooting witnessed more than half her life ago, she assures them that she is.

Perhaps the communities of Jonesboro, Ark.; West Paducah, Ky.; and Edinboro, Pa. - all towns where school shootings in the past few months have done violence to a community's sense of peace - can take comfort in Ruth's quick smile and active life.

For while Ruth and other children who survived that day in Greenwood will never forget what happened, the event has not consumed their lives.

Early on, the children of Oakland Elementary bore emotional wounds. There were nightmares and apprehension about people with hands in pockets. Terror of loud noises in that third-grade class was so acute that for the rest of the year their teacher covered the squeaky feet of their chairs with squares of flannel.

But over the years, those fears have been leavened by the everyday events of growing up - tests to take, school plays, the prom. "It seems like we just went on with life," Ruth says.

Responses to stressful events such as school shootings are highly individual, cautions Chip Frye, director of the Colorado Violence Prevention Center, which trains school crisis-intervention teams. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can surface late - even 10 years later. And the children in Jonesboro, West Paducah and Edinboro have additional burdens to face: the mushrooming news media attention to such events and the fact that their own schoolmates caused the bloodshed.

Joanne McDaniel, research director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., says parents and teachers play a large role in the way a child involved in a school shooting handles the trauma over time.

"They can't ignore what the young people have seen," she says, "but they can try to build strength from it. When tragedies like this happen, we often try to teach the young people from those incidents the lessons that can be learned."

When Ruth stands to receive her high school diploma in a few days, she knows she will look back to Sept. 26, 1988, and think of Shequila Bradley and Tequila Thomas, the two little girls killed at Oakland.

"It is an important part of those years in school," she says, sitting on a swing in her old elementary school's playground. "Just that there were two people that should be walking across that stage with us who didn't get the opportunity."

While some of the Oakland Elementary survivors have managed to put their ordeal behind them, the towns where school shootings happen never really do.

Winnetka, Ill., a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, still bears the scars of May 20, 1988, when a disturbed woman named Laurie Dann burst into Hubbard Woods Elementary School, fatally shooting a second-grader and wounding five others before killing herself.

"The town was just taken," says Herbert Timm, who was chief of police in Winnetka at the time and now commands the force in nearby Burr Ridge. "Being a Camelot-type city, when this happens, you just don't have any idea how the town is seized.

"The one-year anniversary, there was near panic over there. Ten years, we have to anticipate people are going to start talking again. They'd rather be known for their affluence, and the fact that there are so many CEOs, the emphasis on education. This always comes up, though, and they'll have to live with it."

For the children in Greenwood, a quiet town of 20,000, the Oakland shootings provided an early education in senselessness.

Jamie William Wilson, a 19-year-old fascinated with killers and fed up with taunts about his 250-pound frame, took a .22-caliber revolver from his grandmother's home and loaded it with bullets purchased at a nearby discount store.

He drove to Oakland Elementary School, a destination he would later say he reached for no particular reason.

He began shooting in the cafeteria. Then he burst in on the third-grade class, where Emily Pinson and Ruth sat next to Tequila Thomas.

"I looked up at the door and I saw this man," Pinson recalls. And then the shooting began. Pinson and Ruth ran out of the classroom, eventually hiding in the library until after Wilson had surrendered.

Josh Sims, now a gangly teen-ager with a wry wit, recalls sitting next to teacher Eveline Higginbotham that day - he had been acting up in class - and diving under a desk as the shooting started.

The 20 minutes that passed before Wilson put the gun down and followed Higginbotham and a group of children outside "seemed like an eternity," Sims says. By then, Shequila had died, Tequila was dying, and two teachers and seven other students throughout the school had been wounded.

Later, Sims had nightmares about that day, a fact he hid from the counselors who flooded the school, who seemed so hungry for any signs of lingering trauma. Higginbotham's first task in the weeks after the shootings was to calm her class.

"If a man came to the door to check something, they went into hysterics," she says.

The children were distracted by the slightest noise. Higginbotham put up cardboard dividers to help her pupils focus during exams. By the end of the year, test scores were on track and a sense of normality had returned.

Eleanor Rogers - then Eleanor Hodge - had been a teacher for all of five weeks when Wilson burst into Oakland's cafeteria.

There, he shot her twice, along with three children who survived. The first bullet shattered Rogers' left hand, then hit her throat, leaving only a bruise. The second pierced her right shoulder and traveled to the left.

Rogers was out of school for a month for reconstructive surgery on her hand, but she visited the school a week after the shooting. "I went back and it was Oakland again, as far as the way it looked," she says. "My kids were so resilient, it just blew me away."

Today, the sprawling brick school bears yellow and lavender pansies near the front entrance, and a sign that advertises a "Clean Campus Award." The only sign of the tragedy can be found near the playground, where two small plaques list the dead girls' names.

Wilson, convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, is on South Carolina's death row.

Ruth and Pinson are still close friends, the kind who link arms when they walk and wear denim overalls on the same day without planning it. Pinson is editor of the Greenwood High newspaper.

"She seems to be, in most situations of life, as normal as a teen-ager can be," says her father, Gene Pinson.

Recently, Ruth came back to Oakland for a student-teaching program, and it was there that she decided she wanted to be a teacher one day.

"I think it could happen in any field," Ruth says of the shooting, explaining why she is not afraid to spend her future in school. "It's happened to me once. God help me if it happens again."

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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