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© 2019 Amye Archer + Loren Kleinman  |  PRIVACY POLICY

 

The morning of December 1, 1997, started as many other days had at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, with prayer. It wasn’t required, but several students gathered in a prayer circle each morning in the lobby before starting their day. The prayer circle had been a longtime tradition among the students, but on this day, it was the site of a mass shooting.


Michael Carneal, a fourteen-year-old Freshman, entered the school that morning and opened fire on the prayer group with a .22-caliber pistol he had stolen weeks earlier. He killed three students, Nicole Hadley, Jessica James, and Kayce Steger. He wounded five others. When confronted by a classmate, the shooter dropped the gun and pleaded “Kill me, please. I can’t believe I did that.” Carneal was restrained and taken into custody.


There’d been an alarming increase in gun-related violence inside of America’s high schools in 1996 and 1997, and the school districts reeling from these tragedies had little response training. Well-meaning administrators thought it best to return to life as normal, and opened the school the next day for students to return and grieve together. Principal Bill Bond told reporters that “we can't let one mixed-up person destroy our society.” This was a voluntary return, and the school did provide ministers and psychologists on site for students.


The shooting at Heath shocked the small community of West Paducah. Students, victims, and their families tried to rebound from their trauma, but the community was plagued by trials, civil lawsuits, rumors, and legal battles, all of which divided the community. On December 16, 1998, Michael Carneal, then fifteen, entered a plea of Guilty but Mentally Ill, and was sentenced to life in prison. He’s eligible for parole in 2023.


The day of  the shooting, Heath alum and Christian singer and songwriter, Steven Curtis Chapman, flew back to his hometown to comfort the families and his community. At the families’ request, Chapman sang at a joint funeral for Nicole, Jessica, and Kayce, and held a benefit concert in the months that followed. In 1999, he also dedicated a song, With Hope, from his album Speechless to the families who lost someone in the shooting. Chapman's “musical response to the student shootings led him to testify at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on school violence.” He also participated in and helped produce an anti-violence school documentary called Bulletproof?


Soon, however, the cameras went away, and in the two decades following the shooting at Heath, a cloud of silence hung in the air. Many survivors didn’t talk about the shooting, not with the press, and not with each other. It wasn’t until 2017, when the classmates reunited for the twentieth anniversary of the shooting and the dedication of a new memorial, they began to speak. Then, in January of 2018, a shooting at nearby Marshall County High School further inspired many Health survivors to reach out to one another and to share their stories publicly.