New Memorial Day: Remembering Children Killed in School

by Akim Reinhardt

Hiram Maxim and his machine -gun

It’s an exhaustive list. Far longer and deeper than you might suspect. The Tribune tracks U.S. school shootings of the past 50 years. A well documented list by Wikipedia goes back to 1840, when a student named Joseph Semmes shot University of Virginia law professor John Anthony Gardner Davis.

Three more school shootings occurred in the 1850s, when guns were substantially different weapons than they are now. The revolver had been invented in the 1830s, and rifles were beginning to replace muskets, but Hiram Maxim’s machine gun was still decades away. And even when they did arrive, automatic weapons were initially quite expensive and difficult to obtain. In response to the gangland violence of the Prohibition Era (1920-33), the federal government effectively regluated automatic weapons with the 1934 National Firearms Act.

Consequently, even as public school education expanded greatly in the United States after the Civil War (1861-65), documented school shootings were sparse and resulted in relatively few deaths for the remainder of the century.

Decade — (No. of School Shootings) — Deaths/injuries
1860s ——————–(6) ———————————8/1
1870s ——————–(7) ———————————4/4
1880s ——————–(11)———————————2/6
1890s ——————–(8)———————————13/19+

Many school shootings from the 1860s-1950s did not unfold they way we now picture them, with a single gunman mowing down masses of people. Indeed, guns were not even always the preferred weapon. More often, American school violence involved knives and fists. As for school shootings, many resulted from spontaneous fights.

In 1893, a fight erupted at a high school dance in Plain Dealing, Louisiana. Two students died on the scene, two more were fatally wounded, and a teacher was also injured.

That same year, six people were killed and at least one injured at a high school in Charleston, West Virginia when one group of students interrupted another’s performance. A teacher intervened, the antagonizing group turned on him, and then other people joined the fray, resulting in a violent melee. The teacher and five others were shot and killed, and one student died from having his skull crushed.

Another common cause of school shootings during century following the Civil War was vengeance. In 1853, a Louisville, Kentucky student named Mathews Flounoy Ward shot schoolmaster William H.G. Butler to death in revenge for being punished the previous day. Ward was acquitted of murder. In 1856, a Florence, Alabama schoolmaster fatally strangled a student because the student had intentionally stomped the schoolmaster’s sparrow to death. Afterwards, the boy’s father shot and killed the schoolmaster. In 1874, 20 year old student Thomas Squires shot Professor Hayes to death after being thrown out of school in Agency, Montana. And in 1887, Will Guess killed Cleveland, Tennessee school teacher Irene Fann because Fann had whipped his little sister.

Sometimes students were not directly involved, with adults turning violent over school affairs. In 1881, a parent fatally shot a Santa Monica, California schoolmaster in the back while arguing about an upcoming children’s concert.

Sometimes students weren’t involved at all, but violence simply happened to take place on school grounds. In 1879, telegraph operator Frank Shugart shot and injured the superintendent of a girls’ school in Lancaster, New York. And in 1908, 39 year Boston school teacher Sarah Chamberlain Weed, who was believed to be depressed, killed 34 year old teacher Elizabeth Bailey Hardee, and then herself.

A few school shootings illustrated America’s legendary culture of violence, such as when a group of inebriated cowboys terrorized several Barber County, Kansas schoolhouses in 1883, shooting their guns in the air as they forced teachers to drink whiskey. And as late as 1903, two men in Jackson, Kentucky formally dueled with pistols following an argument over a card game. They not only fatally wounded each other, but but one of their bullets passed through the Cave Run School house, striking 12 year old student James Vires in the stomach while he sat at his desk.

Some the shootings were emblematic of the nation’s tortured racial violence. In 1884, 15 year old Allen Wamack threatened to whip students at a black school in Danveille, Virginia. The black students attacked him, and he fired several shots, wounding two students.

And of course sometimes school shootings were just tragic accidents. In 1890, 17-year-old student James Whitworth accidentally killed 15-year-old classmate A.H. Hathaway while the two of them played with a pistol at Kable’s Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia. In 1909, during a school play in Mount Vernon, Illinois, student Roy Slater shot student John Moake in the forehead when the stage gun was mistakenly loaded with a live round instead of a blank. Two years later, a Manhattan, Kansas schoolteacher likewise killed a student with a loaded gun during a school play. In 1909, 11 year old Trinidad, Colorado student Walter Harris accidentally shot his teacher, B.C. Briggs in the head during school field trip. In 1918, a Reeder, North Dakota student accidentally discharged a .22 caliber rifle during afternoon recess, shooting another boy in the head and killing him immediately. And in 1920, a Bowling Green, Ohio mother was accidentally shot and killed by a starter pistol while attending her son’s track meet.

As the 20th century opened, school shootings became more common, but they did not approach the frightful numbers of the 21st century. Prior to World War II, there was less than one school shooting per year on average, and they occurred for a variety of reasons.

During an era when corporal punishment was common, sometimes things went too far.  In 1903, Inman (South Carolina) High School teacher Reuben Pitts attempted to beat 17 year old student Edward Foster with a rod. When Foster jerked the rod from Pitts’ hand, the teacher pulled a pistol. According to Pitts’ account, the gun went off when Foster tried to grab it. The student was shot and later died of his wound. Pitts was acquitted of murder. The following year, Magee, Mississippi parent E.E. Mangum argued with high school principal J.E. Woodward about Woodward’s whipping of Mangum’s son. Mangum shot Woodward in the wrist, and Woodward then shot Mangum in the head, killing him.

Perhaps the first instance of a disgruntled university student engaging in a murder/suicide of a professor and self occurred in 1936 when Lehigh University English instructor C. Wesley Phy refused to change student Wesley Clow’s failing course grade. Clow shot and killed Phy, and turned the gun on himself.

During the two decades after World War II, U.S. school shootings became more common, but mass shootings with double digit casualties were still unheard of. From war’s end through 1965, there were at least 29 school shootings. In most cases, one person died. Two died in 3 of the shootings.  The worst was 3 killed died in a 1960 Hartford City, Indiana, shooting. There was a single injury and no deaths in 7 of the 29 shootings during that period. In all, 28 died and 11 were injured in the 20 years following WWII.

And then came the 1966 clock tower shooting at the University of Texas.

On the morning August 1, 25 year old UT engineering student Charles Whitman knifed his mother and wife to death. He then ascended the campus observation deck on the tower’s 28th floor and began shooting a rifle. Over the next 96 minutes, he killed 17 people and wounded 31, with three of those soon dying from their injuries.

At the time, Whitman’s rampage was seen as a horrific outlier. However, we can now look back and recognize it as the first episode in the current plague of school shootings, much like an early case of disease years before it turns into a full fledged epidemic. The similarities are obvious. A heavily armed student went to school and killed as many people he could. Whitman was so effective that his atrocity remained the deadliest college shooting until the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University.

Charles Whitman, (Photo: 1963 University of Texas Yearbook)

After Whitman, the steady flow of spontaneous school shootings and acts of revenge were occasionally punctuated by more mass shootings.

Just two years after the University of Texas massacre, an 18 year old Mesa, Arizona admirer of Whitman took seven hostages at the Rose-Mar College of Beauty and shot all of them in the head. Five died, including a 3 year old girl. Another baby he shot survived.

But most mass school violence of the 1960s-70s was actually the work of the military and law enforcement officials waging overt government violence against student protesters in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. The 1970 Ohio National Guard’s killing of four and wounding of nine at Kent St. University students is the most infamous event in this vein, but there others. That same year, local police killed two student anti-war protesters and wounded a dozen more at the historically black Jackson State University in Mississippi. And two years before either of these incidents, 3 black South Carolina State University students were killed and another 27 injured when local police shot into a crowd protesting segregation at a local bowling alley.

Jackson State was the last time government forces murdered multiple students on school grounds. But episodess of students killing multiple fellow students and school officials continued sporadically after the University of Texas massacre.

In 1974, 18 year old Olean, New York honors student Anthony Barbaro staged a two and a half hour siege in his high school, which was closed for the Christmas holiday. Shooting a rifle from the school window, he killed 3 adults and wounded 11 others. In 1979, 16 year old Brenda Spencer of San Diego sat in her home and fired a .22 caliber rifle at Grover Cleveland Elementary School across the street. She killed the principal and custodian, and injured 9 people. A reporter phoned Spencer at her home before she was arrested and asked her why she did it. She told him she “didn’t like Mondays.”

There were several mass shootings during the 1980s. Two were killed and a dozen injured at a Los Angeles primary school in 1984. Half a dozen were injured at a Detroit high school the following year. A 19 year old killed 2 and wounded 9 at a Greenwood, South Carolina elementary school in 1988. And in Stockton, California, 24 year old Patrick Purdy killed 16 (including 5 children) and wounded 32 at an elementary school in 1989 before killing himself.

Smaller gun violence also escalated. During the 1980s, there were at least 37 other school shootings, which resuled in 39 deaths and 37 injuries.

During the 1990s, there were nearly 70 school shootings in the United States. Among the mass shootings of that decade were University of Iowa graduate student Gang Lu’s rampage that left 6 dead and 1 paralyzed from the neck down before he killed himself. And in 1996, 36-year-old San Diego State University graduate student Frederick Martin Davidson killed 3.

Less well remembered was 17 year old Amarillo, Texas student Randy Early Matthews, who, in a school shooter profile we now recognize as familiar, had suffered bullying. Having access only to a pistol, he shot seven students at a high school football game in 1991. Or 14 year old Moses Lake, Washington junior high school student Barry Loukatitis, who killed at teacher and two students with a handgun, and injured one more. Or 14 year old Michael Carneal, who killed 3 students and wounded 5 more who were participating in a prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. Or Mitchell Johnson (age 13) and Andrew Golden (age 11), who killed four students and a teacher, and wounded 10 more at Westside Middle School in Craighead County, Arkansas in 1998. Or 15 year old Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, who shot his parents to death that same year before going to Thurston High School, where he killed 2 more and injured 23.

On April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School massacre occured in the Denver, Colorado suburb of Littleton. Eighteen year old Eric Harris and 17 year old Dylan Klebold used an Intratec TEC-DC9 9mm semi-automatic handgun, a sawed off Savage 311-D 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun, a 10-shot Hi-Point model 995 carbine rifle, and a sawed off Savage-Springfield 67H 12-gauge pump shotgun to kill 15 and injure another 21 before killing themselves. It shocked the nation. It seemed to be something new and different. But of course it was just the latest violent episode in roughly 150 years of U.S. school shootings, and simply the most lethal among several mass school shootings of the 1990s.

One month later to the day, 15 year old Conyers, Georgia resident Thomas Solomon Jr. wounded 6 at Heritage High School.

The 21st century has witnessed increased incidents of school violence. The use of high powered, military grade weapons in many of these shootings has led to unprecedented mortality figures and casualty rates.

Since 2000, there have been some 226 school shootings in the United States. The vast majority of them have been perpetrated by students. During the first decade of the century, approximately 111 people were shot to death at U.S. schools.

Some school shootings, like the ones at Sandy Hook Elemenary in Newtown, Connecticut, or at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida match Columbine in that they have found a permanent place in the national consciousness. Others, like the 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, which left 10 dead and 9 injured, or the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, in which 6 were killed and 21 injured, have almost vanished from our collective memory. Last week’s shooting at a high school in Sata Fe, Texas (10 dead, 10 wounded) already seems to be fading.

During the past 35 months, 31 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. During that same period, 71 people have been shot to death in U.S. schools.

Today, Monday, May 28, 2018 is Memorial Day in the United States. It is the official federal holiday set aside for remembering and honoring the ultimate sacrifice made by American soldiers who have died while serving in the nation’s wars.

Perhaps it is time that we had a memorial day for all of the children, teachers, and school officials who have died in American schools. There are many hundreds of them, and likely soon to be thousands.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is