December 1, 1997. It was a Monday, and I will never forget that day. I was the Assignment Manger at the local television station then and one of the first people in the newsroom that morning, aside from the morning show crew. I picked up the phone, and someone was hollering into my ear that somebody had just shot up the lobby of Heath High School. When I realized that it was a very respected source of mine who would have access to that information, I knew it was likely that something serious had happened, but I still wasn't ready to believe the worst. But as I hung up the phone, the scanner next to my desk went wild, and the voice traffic told me that the worst had indeed happened. I picked up the phone to start calling in staff, but my mind couldn't get any traction. I was still trying to process the information that I was hearing. When I heard the call for multiple ambulances, I was stunned. I got a reporter on the line to tell him to get into his car and drive straight to the school, and because he was relatively new to the area he needed directions. I literally couldn't remember how to get there, even though I knew exactly where that school was. That's how numb I was. I handed the phone to a coworker who had walked into the room, and I said, "Tell Berndt how to get to Heath High School." Within hours, we would learn that three girls were dead and five other students were injured, one of them paralyzed from the waist down.
That was the beginning of what ended up being two of the most difficult weeks I've ever had on the job. We worked almost around the clock. Papa T. was the school superintendent at the time, so he and I each wandered home late each night, caught a little sleep and went in early each morning. I think he aged ten years in those few days. He had some very difficult decisions to make about when and how the kids would all go back to school. I think he handled it very well.
It was an extremely stressful time, and everyone's emotions were raw because this was such a blow to our community. We all knew people who were directly affected, and we all felt extremely protective of our children. I smiled to myself when the gentleman in Chandon yesterday encouraged parents to go home and hug their children. It was almost as if he was following a script already written by the Heaths, and the Pearls and the Columbines. I've heard that quote before. Right here in my own backyard and in the towns who have suffered this brand of horror since.
With the national media descending immediately on our town in 1997, the spotlight shined brightly on us, and the whole country witnessed our grief. There were candlelight vigils, the perp walk. There was a mass funeral for the three girls who were killed. The families asked our station to provide live coverage of it for the networks. They wanted the world to see the devastation the shooter had brought to their families. We did it with as much care and sensitivity as we could. We tried our best to protect them from some of the network news madness, but it was almost impossible. My job was to deal with the network affiliates, and they wore me out with their requests. And their boldness. A Dateline NBC producer walked right into the back door of someone's home. A CNN producer tried to slip into the funeral behind one of our crew members, which was strictly off limits to everyone except our employees we had assigned to operate the equipment. We had to threaten to have that producer arrested. It was just crazy how pushy they could be, and at one point, I ripped into some CNN folks like a buzz saw over their behavior. I make it a point to NEVER yell in the workplace, but I lost my mind that day, mostly due to stress. I yelled loud enough for that producer to hear me in Atlanta without the phone. I remember my mother calling me in the middle of all that madness, just to see how I was doing. The minute I heard her voice I burst into tears. What a release. It was common to find one of our employees silently crying as we edited video tape or planned the funeral coverage in those days. Like everyone else, we struggled to understand how it could happen to our town.
The images of those days roll through my head easily when I think about them. Panicked parents running to the school to find their kids that morning of the shooting, bloody towels on the floor of the school lobby and the scrawny fourteen year old boy who caused the havoc when he snuck three guns into school and opened fire on a prayer circle of unsuspecting kids. I don't think I'll ever forget those pictures. And I'll certainly never forget the emotions attached to those days. And as troubling as they are for me, they are nothing like the emotions of the people who were victims or close to the victims. I just can't imagine how difficult it has been for them, although I've gotten glimpses of it in interviews that have followed in the years since. Their pain runs deep.
That kind of pain strains marriages, it causes anger and it changes the rest of your life. Those folks will simply never be the same. And their pain never ends. There's always a new chapter. The Heath gunman pleaded guilty six months after the shootings but has since appealed that plea. He has been in and out of court for the last fourteen years, dredging up old hurts for the victims' families every time. His family has felt pain, too. It's hard to live in a city where your son shot up a school.
The reason I share this with you is that I want you to understand that it can happen to you, too. Even if you live in a small town in the middle of nowhere. We are a rural community of 60,000 people where crime is very low, and people don't always lock their doors. It still happened to us. These shootings are not random acts of inner city gang violence. They are generally planned by kids who fit a particular demographic. They are boys who usually are bullied or feel picked on. They are loners with few friends, and they are often deeply troubled. Their classmates describe them as weird or odd. They are shunned. They take the abuse of school mates until they can't take it anymore. They crack, and they choose to respond in a horrible way. Our gunman spoke of being picked on. He was small and meek.
Oddly enough, he had a growth spurt just a few years later and became very capable of defending himself.
I've often wondered how things might have been different if he could have hung on until he had grown more.
And there are almost always signs. In our case, the boy told some kids, "Something big is going to happen on Monday." No one took him seriously. It is common in these shootings for the shooter to give some kind of warning, especially in this day of social media. And if the people around him have the courage to report it, he can be stopped. There was an excellent report on Nightly News last night about the number of planned attacks that have been stopped in recent years because someone reported a suspicious comment or behavior. I encourage you to talk to your children or grandchildren about the affects of bullying and the importance of reporting suspicious behavior. In hindsight, most of these shootings were preceded by signs that something was going wrong in the shooter's life. Hindsight may be 20/20 but unfortunately, it can also be fatal. Does your child know what to do if there is an intruder in his school? Does your child's school have a plan for such an event? These are questions you should ask if you haven't already. If it can happen to us, it can happen to you.
The folks in Chardon need our prayers. They have a long road of healing before them. We're at fourteen years and counting.