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In 2001, Brenda Ann Spencer, inmate W14944 of Chino, California Women’s Institution stated, “With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible . . . What if they got the idea from what I did?”
Yeah . . . what if?
Columbine? Virginia Tech? Sandy Hook? Isla Vista? San Bernardino?
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas?
I wanna to shoot the whole day down . . .
Sixteen-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer’s home in the Allied Gardens neighborhood in eastern San Diego was situated across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary School. On the drab, chilly morning of January 29, 1979, she asked her father if she could remain home, claiming she felt unwell. After he departed, by 8:30, precisely the moment students lined up at the gate where genial Principal Wragg greeted them to begin another innocent day of playing and learning, she fingered the trigger of her Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic rifle, then commenced firing.
‘It was fun to watch the children that had red and blue ski jackets on, as they made perfect targets . . . [she] liked to watch them squirm around after they had been shot.’ (The Daily Beast, May 13, 2014)
At the time, in twentieth-century American history there had been two school attacks (both by deranged middle-aged men with explosives), with the most devastating being the Bath school disaster.
In immeasurable ways, the events at Cleveland Elementary were unprecedented. (This does not mean to imply that the tragedies that predated San Diego were not equally horrific.) Among many revelations rooted in factual evidence and eyewitness accounts, the 2005 parole board hearing determined that Spencer, a teenage girl, indeed, was aiming for children, was targeting adult employees. Her initial claim was her action was elicited by the simple need of wanting law enforcement to kill her, as she was unable to take her own life. Her meticulous, intentional and sinister actions do not support that claim.
Shooting rounds point blank into the chest of heroic Principal Burton Wragg, into the chest of heroic building supervisor Michael “Mr. Mike” Suchar – a veteran of WWII – and into the neck of a responding San Diego police officer, Robert Robb, were indications of a surgical strike – not attention-grabbers. Unloading a cascade of ammunition into the bodies of terrified children – eight being injured – left law enforcement, city officials, family members and the community not only experiencing inexplicable loss, but experiencing a loss for words. Miraculously, the youngsters survived, yet, how could anyone convey into coherent sentences the random, senseless, unrivaled act of enmity unleashed from a child herself?
From NPR’s thirty-year anniversary published article (January 29, 2009), reporter Steven Weegan managed to find himself in the position of gaining first-hand, real time knowledge of Spencer’s motives. The words remain then – and today – bone-chilling:
‘MIKE PESCA: By San Diego standards, January 29th, 1979, was a dreary Monday morning. The day was just beginning at Grover Cleveland Elementary School when across the street, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer looked out her front window. She loaded the rifle she had been given as a Christmas present and then began firing. Soon, nine children lay wounded. The principal and school janitor were dead. Reporter Steven Weegan(ph), from his desk at the San Diego Tribune, began to call the homes near the school seeking out an eyewitness. His first call was to the house closest to Grover Cleveland Elementary.
Mr. STEVEN WEEGAN (Reporter, Chicago Tribune): So, when I called, a girl answered the phone, and I told her who I was, and I said can you see anything from where you are? And she said, yeah, it’s all, and she said it’s – there’s people running around and there’s a couple of people shot. And I said, can you see where the shooting’s coming from? And she gave me the address. And I said, well, isn’t that the address I just called. And she said, yeah, who do you think’s doing the shooting?
PESCA: Weegan began asking the girl questions, tell me about yourself. The rifle was a 22, she lived with her dad, she was bored. As they talked, he got worried that yes, this girl’s house was where the shooting was coming from. Weegan asked the obvious question.
Mr. WEEGAN: I asked her why she was doing it, and she said because I just don’t like Mondays. Do you like Mondays? You know, it just livens up the day.’
Brenda Ann Spencer was the youngest of three children. Father, Wallace, worked at a nearby college. By many accounts that were entered into the legal records, her mother, Dot, was not very present in her daughter’s life. This imbalanced home environment allegedly was defined by Mr. Spencer sexually abusing Brenda Ann from the young age of nine until the decisive morning of the murders. Her parents divorced in 1972, eerily correlating with the seven years of abuse. Prior, the child was considered a tomboy, active in sports, an animal lover, and excellent with photography. She would later identify and publicly acknowledge her sexual orientation as lesbian.
And then the bullhorn crackles and the captain tackles / With the problems and the hows and the whys . . .
As the courts ruled in favor of full custody of all three children to the father, there was noticeable change in Brenda Ann’s behavior. Why wouldn’t there be? Divorce, absent mother, distant father – except when he wanted her – awkward socialization, the “wrong” crowd, and eyewitnesses voicing concerns over her anti-social actions such as truancy, harming animals, becoming a sharpshooter with firing weapons, drug use, and fixating on ‘gore rocker’ Alice Cooper.
School counselors and psychiatrists were heavily involved, trying arduously to have her hospitalized. Warning signs flashed like casino lights in Vegas. However, laws at the time were firmly in the perilous control of Wallace Spencer, who not only disallowed any psychiatric interventions, but prior to the fateful day bought her the rifle as a Christmas gift. According to her statements, she regarded that as his way of condoning her wish to kill herself.
‘Her crime is seen as a turning point in American history, the first of its kind in the country. Brenda would become known as the mother of such schoolyard massacres as Columbine and Newtown.’ (New York Daily News, November 3, 2013)
They can see no reasons ‘cause there aren’t no reasons . . .
With the new normal of mass school shootings, it isn’t a stretch to agree that Spencer’s rhetorical questions from 2001 were as pointed then as they remain now. (Though, in a fake-news-Twitter-everyone’s-a-reporter “culture” we embrace, one must scrutinize distinctions between an ‘incident’ and what is clearly malevolent and befitting the definition.)
The recent murderous Valentine’s Day rampage at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has spurred a national discourse – a conversation, that in many ways, has engendered a dynamic, grassroots movement of teenage students unwilling to keep silent anymore. The outcry is unparalleled. Thoughts and prayers are not enough anymore. Were they ever?
Not soon after, showing courage and solidarity as they revisited the most catastrophic day of their lives, survivors of Grover Cleveland ES and those who were familiar with Spencer reacted to the Parkland shootings.
Now that Parkland students and their extended family have taken on Tallahassee, their next stop: Washington, D.C. And not just them, but a force of millions. My thoughts and prayers will not be with them. My raised fist will.
March for Our Lives will occur on March 24 of this year. In its Mission Statement, the tone is definitive and extremely focused:
‘Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at a school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of a firing assault rifle to the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our schools are unsafe. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it out top priority to save these lives.’
In 1977, I began my freshman year at U.C. San Diego in La Jolla, some twenty-two miles from Brenda Ann Spencer’s home, and the school across the street. As it would happen, I chose to transfer to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where, five months into my sophomore year, this tragedy caught the attention of my college friends and I, the nation, and around the globe. I remember thinking had I remained at UCSD, what might I have done. I was studying education and music.
In Olympia, while working with students at a local elementary school, I cannot remember how the news may have been shared with them by their parents, their teacher, or administration as I was merely a novice one step removed from student teaching. I sense the times required a conservative approach, leaving it to the families.
And nobody’s gonna go to school today / She’s going to make them stay at home . . .
Fast forward to 1993-94 as I taught my compassionate, thoughtful, and intelligent group of fifth-grade students here in San Rafael, the notorious Polly Klaas child abduction case was perpetrated. Students were justly unsettled, parents and I had in-depth conversations, families were locking their doors for the first time ever, and administration was very transparent with how the school district would approach the students’ emotions. I facilitated many conversations with my group, who even at the ages of ten and eleven showed wisdom beyond their years.
This circles back to the point being eloquently and ardently argued by young and old alike: Let’s listen to the children, to the teens, not because they are ‘smarter’ or have some insights that their elders do not possess, but that they are closer to what is happening; it is raw. That’s when a sea change, with its turbulent tide, can smash against the concrete pillars of the intransient embankments formed by years of the barnacle clutches of immutable, staunch, small-minded, three-letter-acronym, self-proclaimed protectors of ‘a well-armed militia.’ When the framers of the Constitution guaranteed the right to bear arms, the arms were muskets – not a Bushmaster XM15-ES2 and a Glock 20SF, each able to render first-grade children into bloody pieces in a matter of seconds.
What reason do you need to die, die, ohoho . . .
Never forget the children of Sandy Hook whose lives were taken:
- Charlotte Bacon, 6
- Daniel Bardon, 7
- Olivia Engel, 6
- Josephine Gay, 7
- Dylan Hockley, 6
- Madeline Hsu, 6
- Catherine Hubbard, 6
- Chase Kowalski, 7
- Jesse Lewis, 6
- Ana Márquez-Greene, 6
- James Mattioli, 6
- Grace McDonnell, 7
- Emilie Parker, 6
- Jake Pinto, 6
- Noah Pozner, 6
- Caroline Previdi, 6
- Jessica Rekos, 6
- Avielle Richman, 6
- Benjamin Wheeler, 6
- Allison Wyatt, 6
Never forget the teenagers of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School whose lives were taken:
- Alyssa Alhadeff, 14
- Martin Duque, 14
- Nicholas Dworet, 17
- Jaime Guttenberg, 14
- Luke Hoyer, 15
- Cara Loughran, 14
- Gina Montalto, 14
- Joaquin Oliver, 17
- Alaina Petty, 14
- Meadow Pollack, 18
- Helena Ramsay, 17
- Alex Schachter, 14
- Carmen Schentrup, 16
- Peter Wang, 15
Never forget all of the other young people, their families and friends not mentioned here. Sadly, listing them would take up hundreds of pages.
Further note: I listed children and teens for this context only. School personnel and first responders have shown extraordinary courage when tragedy strikes.
The San Diego school district shut the doors of Grover Cleveland Elementary School in 1983. Declining enrollment was cited as the cause, the property then leased, including 2005 when the Magnolia Science Academy was established. Today, that long-ago day is covered by tall weeds, chain link fencing, and a notation on Google Maps disconcertingly indicating the school as permanently closed. In recent years, much discussion has been held to determine the land use in the area. Developers will inevitably build their expensive housing sites.
However, those who remember, specifically, those who were there, adamantly want an on-site memorial to Principal Wragg and Mr. Suchar. Though there is a memorial park away from where Brenda Ann Spencer enlivened her day, considering the life lost in protecting children on this specific geographical location, considering how a way of life was lost, considering established here was the inaugural “new normal” now permeating the gun culture on school campuses across the United States; this hallowed ground must be remembered – even if only in the shape of an austere stone plaque on limited, yet well-groomed grass.
“Mr. Mike” would be proud to gaze upon such a sight.
Emma Gonzalez has the last word. I implore you to listen to each and every one.
Along with many of her generation, Ms. Gonzalez poses that the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School will be the last ever in this country. What do you believe to be the most realistic course to achieve that goal? Share your selection (s) and comments. Thank you!
- National age restrictions on assault weapons (supersedes 10th Amendment)
- Background checks on any individual before a purchase (supersedes 10th Amendment)
- National ban on all assault weapons (supersedes 10th Amendment)
- Release of medical records of individuals who show signs of committing violent acts
- Government subsidizing the highest level of surveillance technology at every school
- Armed SWAT units on campuses
- National truancy (non-compulsory attendance) until laws are changed
- The Second Amendment rewritten to adjust to the times
- The NRA disallowed to contribute to any public official’s fundraising campaign