Trigger Effect

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The preliminary list of students and teachers who were injured in the mass shooting at Cleveland Elementary in Stockton in 1989. The telephone numbers shown no longer belong to the victims' families. (Photograph by Max Whittaker)

On a clear blue day on Jan. 17, 1989, a man whose peripatetic life included years as a troubled Sacramento youth walked onto a playground in Stockton and shot 35 children, killing five. In the span of only a few minutes, the act marked the first mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history. Today, 25 years later—and one year after the massacre at Newtown—these once-unthinkable tragedies have become terrifyingly familiar as citizens and political leaders from Sacramento to Washington choose sides in the fight over the future of guns in America.

SSovanna Koeurt still has the list. She stores it at home in Stockton, where it remains filed
alongside various notes, documents, news clippings and artifacts rooted in one day in 1989. She kept other lists from that day, too, but when she talks about everything that happened, she mentions this list—the first one. It is a single page, gently dog-eared on the upper left corner and creased into equal, yellowing eighths. She doesn’t recall who gave it to her. Maybe a police officer. Maybe a teacher. The source is no more and no less knowable today than it was on that January afternoon when Koeurt hurtled out her apartment door and into the cold abyss of panic less than a mile down Fulton Street. There are plenty of things she does know from that day. Visions she can’t shake, sounds she can’t unhear. She knows why she ended up with the list. She knows that her friends pulled her into action. She knows, as their neighbor and advocate, why its burden fell to her. She knows all but a few of the names. She knows their families. She knows their language. She knows how she came to unlock the list’s secrets—its horrors and reliefs—for them amid the tears and chaos and confusion. She knows the rush of numbness that accompanied receiving the list in the first place, and the wailing that still sometimes reverberates around her. The crowded grasping of hands and thunder of voices. The church walls closing in.

Sovanna Koeurt, photographed in the offices of the Asian Pacific Self-Development and Residential Association in Stockton, acted as a liaison between Cleveland Elementary School and the Cambodian community (four of the five students killed were Cambodian) in the aftermath of the shooting. (Photograph by Max Whittaker)Koeurt knows she heard the other parents’ cries grow distinct—desperate men and women awaiting word about their children. The eminently familiar native tongues, curses in Cambodian. She’d spent many evenings working to teach some of them English, and now only she—not a cop, not a teacher, not anyone else—could answer them in the noonday havoc.

“Come on, read it!”

But she couldn’t. Not aloud. Not yet anyway. Not until she searched for her two sons among 32 typewritten names that flanked the left margin beneath a heading in capital letters: “STUDENTS THAT ARE INJURED.” Her sons weren’t on the list, but she didn’t know what that meant for more than an hour, when the lockdown ended and the boys ran from a classroom to finally be reunited with their mother.

She knows that the reporters interviewed her, and the panic faded to a pall. She needed to add more students to the list. Their names pooled in blue and black ink at the bottom of the column.

At the time, many were strangers to Koeurt, but she knew one of the boys: Rathanar Or, a 9-year-old who played basketball every day with her son Viseth. They were best friends until that morning, when a 24-year-old man named Patrick Purdy walked onto the school grounds with a semiautomatic rifle and fired 105 rounds at the children. Rathanar was shot and killed just before noon.

Koeurt still has the list and its indelible annotations—names and ages and hospitals and nightmares hand-printed around the page.

Procession.

Mother.


St. Joseph.

(7ysF)


Dead.


Cleveland School.

***

There is another list. It belongs to nobody and everybody. We reclaim it every few years from the anguished ether. New names once again join old names, strangers coming into focus, demanding reckoning. The list is shorter than the one Sovanna Koeurt keeps, yet it begins on that page, and it grows crueler across the decades. It winds through milestones and mythologies, tragedies we know by heart if less and less by memory.

Stockton. Iowa City. Lindhurst. Westside. Thurston. Columbine. Red Lake. Nickel Mines. Virginia Tech. Northern Illinois. Oikos. Sandy Hook.

Twenty-five years removed from the beginning, there is no end. There are 125 dead, 160 wounded and counting in the inexorable epidemic of mass shootings at schools in the United States. There is that epochal massacre on that Stockton playground a quarter-century ago, and there is the year since a gunman ended the lives of 20 first-graders and six school staffers in Connecticut. There are the families and survivors and communities adrift in the aftermath. There is the pattern of shock and grief that greets each killing, followed by pageants of indignation and irresolution that have plagued the issue of gun violence for a generation.

It’s true that shootings had transpired on American school campuses long before Purdy killed five students and wounded 30 more (plus a teacher) at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton on Jan. 17, 1989. The first recorded instance came when four Lenape warriors shot an instructor and scalped him and 12 of his pupils in 1764; nine of the children died. The University of Texas was the site of one of the 20th century’s most notorious mass shootings in 1966 when Charles Whitman killed 14 people and injured 32 others from his perch atop a campus tower. In 1988 alone, at least four schools nationwide were targeted by people with guns, resulting in a total of three students killed. Historically, school shootings and their victims make up a miniscule fraction of the nation’s firearm casualties. In terms of pure numbers, the shooting at Cleveland School barely cleared the FBI’s definition of a mass murder, in which a killer takes four victims’ lives, typically in one location without interruption.

Yet the event in Stockton had an unprecedented impact on the American psyche, which has struggled ever since to reconcile the image of fallen kids with the power of its gun culture. As the first mass school shooting since the advent of CNN, it stunned and galvanized viewers in breathless televised loops. Within months of Purdy’s rampage, lawmakers up the road in Sacramento had passed America’s first major gun-control legislation, including statewide bans on 75 types of firearms (including the Norinco AK-47 rifle, Purdy’s main weapon). The nation’s gun-rights proponents, led by representatives of the three million-member National Rifle Association, fought back with lobbying and recall efforts that it wields effectively to this day. And from Stockton to Newtown, Conn., and everywhere else these grim anniversaries await, the echoes of gunfire and rhetoric dissolve around the heartbreak, heroism and recovery of those who were there. Then, at another ravaged school, the cycle that started at Cleveland resumes.

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