WEST PADUCAH, Ky. (BP)–“Seventeen years ago I would have been sitting in that circle,” said Stephen Curtis Chapman.
The circle was the one in which three high school students were killed and five others wounded by gunfire unleashed by a fellow student Dec. 1.
Chapman, one of the nation’s most popular Christian singers, is a graduate of rural Heath High School, West Paducah, Ky., which found itself in the nation’s spotlight after a 14-year-old student opened fire on 30 to 40 students who had just finished praying before the start of classes.
Chapman also grew up in Paducah’s Olivet Baptist Church and drove from his home near Nashville, Tenn., to the church’s prayer service the night of Dec. 1 — one of several held in the small Ohio River community after the morning’s killings.
“I knew and felt that I needed to be here,” Chapman said. He will return for the Dec. 5 joint funeral of the three students who were killed at the school, located eight miles from Paducah. The Friday services will be at Paducah’s Heartland Worship Center church.
The deceased students are Heath High School senior Jessica James, 17; sophomore Kacey Steger, 15; and freshman Nicole Hadley, 14. Charged with their murder is freshman Michael Carneal, 14.
As the school reopened Dec. 3, Heath High senior Ben Strong, a pastor’s son described as a hero for persuading Carneal to drop his gun, led another prayer meeting before class in the school lobby — the scene of the Dec. 1 shootings.
An estimated 200 of the school’s 600 students attended.
“We just had a time of silence for everyone to reflect and pray,” Strong said, according to an Associated Press report. “I told them God’s the only thing we can turn to in a moment like this.”
Kevin McCallon, pastor of Paducah’s First Baptist Church the past four years, was interviewed on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” broadcast Dec. 2 about Paducah’s shock and sorrow.
Asked how he and others are helping Paducah’s teens “make sense” of such a tragedy, McCallon recounted, “I think what we try to encourage them about is an understanding that we live in a world that is a very ugly world at times. We give them examples from history of people that they would know.
“For example, I would normally give an example about Jesus Christ, who was a perfect person, and could heal anyone at any time, and even Jesus was taken by the world and crucified. And it encourages them just to know that the world around them is capable of this, but that’s not all there is.
“And the very reason these young people were coming together was because they are, at many times, in situations that need encouragement from each other. And they wanted to make a positive response,” McCallon said, adding the tragedy underscores “how precious we really are and how precious life is to each other.”
Of the students’ return to school, McCallon said, “The kids just being with each other and grieving with each other, encouraging each other and even praying for this young man, for his family and for everyone that’s going through this together, kind of helps everyone — just help each other as much as possible. And that’s very much what was going on today.”
Asked about a sense of “understanding and forgiveness” among many students, McCallon said, “I think that’s the only way for them to respond.” He said he had not yet been given a chance to visit the youth charged with the murders, but noted, “Our interest was that what he expects, I think, is to be responded to with anger and with violence himself. What he doesn’t expect is for someone to love him, someone to be interested in him and to reach out to him, and that’s the kind of thing that we can offer each other, that others around us can’t.”
The pastor acknowledged, “It’s very difficult, as you can imagine. That natural, emotional, angry response is also there, but we’re encouraging them if they can also channel that in doing something positive for each other. And for him (Carneal), it might make a difference in his life.”
For the 30,000 people in the Paducah area, McCallon predicted, “There’s a lot of healing and a long time to go in this, six months, a year, and a lot of love is still needed.”
Heath High School principal Bill Bond, a First Baptist member, told reporters, concerning the school’s reopening, “I still believe in public education and we can’t let one mixed-up person destroy our society. If someone believes in anarchy and we let that anarchy control us, then he is in control of us. And I don’t believe in letting someone control me, so we will go about our business.”
The 14-year-old suspect is the son of a respected Paducah attorney and elder at St. Paul Lutheran Church, John Carneal, and his wife, Ann.
Paul Donner, St. Paul’s pastor of 31 years, in a news conference Dec. 2 at the church, said the father told him, “I’m numb. The worst thing that could happen in your life is for your child to shoot other children.” Donner said John and Ann Carneal, Michael and a 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, have long been active in Sunday school and other church functions.
The killings were “not the act of an atheist,” Donner told reporters in response to some news reports that the boy, before shooting at the students in a prayer group, had declared his atheism. According to other reports, Michael Carneal was among a dozen students who, at times, engaged in harassing the prayer group.
“I’m firmly convinced Michael Carneal is a Christian,” Donner said. “He’s a sinner, yes, but not an atheist … The first Sunday in May, he knelt here at this altar and professed his faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior.”
Donner and Chuck Walter, a lay assistant at the church, both taught Michael Carneal in confirmation classes over the past two years, according to a report in the Louisville Courier-Journal. They were quoted as saying the youth was regularly involved in church activities, inquisitive and liked by other boys his age and, as Walter said, was one who “keeps you busy” or is somewhat “hyperactive,” although they said they knew of no clinical diagnosis.
Bobby Strong, father of the student prayer group leader, whose church was not identified in various news accounts, said in an interview that while the killings seem puzzling, “I believe there is a real demonic force that would drive someone to do this. That’s why we need a saving grace now.”
Sheriff Frank Augustus of McCracken County told reporters the boy admitted firing at the students, none of whom were known to have abused him in any way.
“He said he was sorry,” Augustus said. “He doesn’t know why this has happened.”
Augustus said the boy’s father told him the youth had never shown any interest in guns.
“I believe the family owns guns but the father told me he didn’t honestly believe the boy’d ever shot a gun, or he just didn’t care about guns,” Augustus said.
After Carneal fired about 12 shots from a pistol, students screamed and sobbed, others ran in the hallway, blood pooled on the tile floor of the school lobby and school principal Bond took Carneal to his office.
Bond said the boy told him then, “It was kind of like I was in a dream, and then I woke up.”
Authorities said Carneal brought a small arsenal to the school: the pistol, two antique long rifles and two older shotguns, all allegedly stolen Thanksgiving Day from a neighbor’s garage. He brought three loaded pistol clips and more than 600 rounds of ammunition for the handgun and four boxes of shells for the shotguns, Bond said. He had taped together the shotguns and rifles and wrapped them in a blanket. He told a mildly suspicious teacher that it was his science project.
As student prayer group was disbanding about 7:40 a.m., Carneal calmly stuffed plugs into his ears, drew the pistol from his backpack and shot at the circle until just before the first bell rang for classes.
“Only the first three shots could have been aimed,” said Bond, who ran out from his office when he heard gunfire. “After that, it was just as fast as he could pull the trigger.”
The Kentucky shooting came just two months after a bloody rampage at a high school in Pearl, Miss., in which a 16-year-old student distraught over a breakup with a girlfriend stabbed his mother to death and drove to the school with a rifle under his trench coat, where he killed his former girlfriend and another girl, wounding seven others.
Six other teens later were arrested as accomplices in what police called a satanic cult.
James A. Smith Sr., Polly House & Betty Kemp contributed to this story.