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1997 Was the Dawn of the Modern School Shooting

Two years before Columbine, the nation first reckoned with an unprecedented four school attacks carried out by aggrieved teenage boys — a type of shooting we’re all too familiar with today

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

Heath High School is woven into a quilt of forest green and farmland beige in Western Kentucky, just a river crossing away from the edge of Illinois. Trimmed in brick and blond stucco, the campus is one of the few major gathering points in the small community of West Paducah.

On the morning of December 1, 1997, a 14-year-old named Michael Carneal rode the bus to school with his older sister. Next to him was a shotgun and a rifle, wrapped in a blanket and disguised as an art project. In his backpack was a .22 Ruger pistol. When the bus stopped, he exited as he always had, walking across the pavement and into the school’s first-floor lobby. He reached into his bag, inserted earplugs, wrapped his hand around the pistol and raised it in the direction of a prayer circle that met in the lobby every morning. 

Carneal popped off one shot as the group’s prayer concluded with “amen.” He kept pulling the trigger as students started to scatter and scream. 

One person didn’t flee: Benjamin Strong, a 17-year-old senior who, despite running in different social circles than Carneal, had become a friend to the freshman. The previous week, before the Thanksgiving break, Carneal had given Strong a piece of disconcerting advice: Don’t be at prayer circle on Monday. Strong took it seriously, spending all weekend pondering exactly what such a warning implied. 

He stood in shock, as Carneal emptied the 11-round magazine, then dropped the gun and collapsed. Strong then rushed up to him, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking Carneal. “What are you shooting people for?” he exclaimed

The 14-year-old only had one thing in mind: “Kill me. Kill me, please,” he said. “I can’t believe I did that.”

The campus remained chaotic in the aftermath, with some curious students even returning to the lobby, disbelieving rumors of a gunman and bloodshed. One 16-year-old girl, Sarah Stewart Holland, opened the wooden double doors to the lobby and witnessed bodies of her classmates, strewn about in puddles of blood. “I turned around and walked out. I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t panic. I just knew that that building was not a place I needed or wanted to be,” she wrote in 2012. “I don’t remember any physical reaction — only mind-numbing shock.” 

Another witness, school psychiatrist Alan Mullins, recounted the mounting chaos that subsumed students and faculty alike. Cell phones were a rarity, and it meant the vast majority of the school was unsure of what had happened, and who had survived. “I could still smell the gunpowder, the gun residue from the firing of the weapon, the scene of blood on the school floor, the looks in people’s faces,” Mullins said in May. 

When it comes to school shootings in the 1990s, nothing has greater infamy or prominence in America’s collective memory quite like the Columbine massacre in 1999. But it was two years earlier that the nation first reckoned with an obvious rise in school killings from aggrieved teen boys, with an unprecedented four attacks during 1997. It seemed to inspire copycat killers through the rest of the decade, with multiple school shootings occurring in 1998, 1999 and 2000. 

In so many ways, the Heath High School shooting served as a prototype for future incidents. Carneal killed three classmates  — Nicole Hadley, Kayce Steger and Jessica James — and injured five others, including paralyzing 15-year-old Missy Jenkins Smith. But he later testified that he didn’t have any particular target in mind, and just sought violence to quell the sensation of growing paranoia and panic. Carneal said he was suicidal, “mad at the world” and hated being compared to his model-student older sister. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being a target for others, including feeling humiliated when the middle school newspaper published gossip that Carneal might be gay. 

The vast majority of school shootings prior to 1997 had far clearer motives, whether based on grievances around academic achievement, unrequited love, money or simple hatred of certain individuals, especially those with authority. The perpetrators were often older men past high-school age, some with extensive histories of violence, abuse and mental illness. In so many ways, these school attacks more closely resembled workplace shootings, which became more frequent in the late 20th century. 

But the school attacks in 1997 represented entropy of a different kind: Boys who seemed placid from the outside were picking up arms and choosing to kill indiscriminately as a balm for feeling isolated, unheard and hurt. 

On February 19th, a 16-year-old took a shotgun and a bag of buckshot shells to his school in Bethel, Alaska. Classmates knew Evan Ramsey was a target of bullying at Bethel Regional High, but nobody knew much about his history of experiencing serious sexual and physical abuse in his childhood. Seemingly no one took his warnings seriously: More than 15 students allegedly knew about the shooting, with some even bringing cameras on the day of the incident. He killed a student and the school principal, and injured two others before surrendering to police. 

On October 1st, a 16-year-old in Pearl, Mississippi, stabbed his mother to death before going to school, disguising a rifle under his trenchcoat and shooting nine students, two of whom died. Although one of the victims was a recent ex-girlfriend of the killer, Luke Woodham, there was no evidence that she was specifically targeted; in a kind of mini-manifesto, Woodham told a friend (and accused co-conspirator) that the shooting “was not a cry for attention” or a “cry for help.” “It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if you can’t pry your eyes open, if I can’t do it through pacifism, if I can’t show you through the displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet,” he reportedly said.

Then, just two weeks after the December 1st shooting in Kentucky, another attack happened in Arkansas. A 14-year-old eighth grader took a .22-caliber rifle, hid in the woods outside of his high school in the tiny enclave of Stamps, and shot two classmates as they stood in the parking lot. Both survived the attack, and the shooter, Colt Todd, was arrested days later. The eighth grader told police that he was tired of being bullied, although neither of his victims had harassed him. 

As for Carneal, the young man pleaded guilty but mentally ill to charges of murder and attempted murder, and was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He has received consistent mental health treatment during his imprisonment, but has in interviews maintained that there was no single explanation for what he did. Carneal admitted that he never clearly saw who he was shooting, and didn’t even realize who had died until he read their names in the newspaper. The taunting from other students was real, but Carneal also observed that before the murders, he had grown obsessed with the notion that he was doomed to be lonely forever. 

“For some reason, I didn’t think anyone cared about me,” Carneal said. “I didn’t think my parents or my sister cared about me at all.”

He embodies the profile of the modern school shooter as we understand it today: Young and lonely, aggrieved but without any particular single target or ideological bent. They’re at the precipice of maturing into adulthood, and craving acknowledgment — yet wary of a society they believe sees them as broken and unattractive. They feel intentional emotional currents that indicate bigger mental health issues, but with little evidence in advance that they’re capable of fatal violence. 

When the moment comes, the prototype is largely indiscriminate with the violence they sow, even if they chose to do it within an environment familiar to them. And like Carneal, they’re often left at a loss to explain exactly why they chose to kill or what they thought it could accomplish. 

Though dying by suicide in the aftermath of a mass killing is a common outcome for such a perpetrator, Carneal is able to reckon with a life beyond tragedy: He is set to appear before the state parole board in October and potentially be released. Despite being a 39-year-old man who has been incarcerated since he was a child, some of his victims and their supporters continue to argue that he should stay exactly where he is. 

Heath High School is no more, having been shuttered in 2013 after the school district opened a larger, more centralized new campus for students in the West Paducah area. The victims of the shooting in 1997 still recall December 1st vividly, and some have remained outspoken in the press, decrying the continuing threat of school massacres and reflecting on how such violence changed their lives forever.

What does Carneal make of all the shootings that unfolded, many in copycat fashion, after his own deadly foray? There aren’t any public interviews of him in the last decade, but in a 2002 conversation, a 19-year-old Carneal was candid, saying that things might have been different if someone had been able to pull him to the side and get him to divulge his true feelings. 

“I was angry, I was lonely, I was afraid. I was just full of emotions, and I didn’t know how to control them,” he said. “For some reason, I thought that if I did that, I thought that all my problems would just go away. But I never really thought about what would happen to the people.”