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Echoes of ‘The Incident’ : Stockton Still Haunted by Schoolyard Bloodbath

Times Staff Writer

It’s called “The Incident,” “The Thing” or “The Event.”

“I have to force myself to say ‘shooting.’ I rarely say ‘the Cleveland school killings’ because it makes my skin crawl,” said Roger Speed, in charge of counseling the survivors.

Six weeks after Patrick Edward Purdy fired more than 100 rounds from an AK-47 into the Cleveland Elementary School playground, killing five children and wounding 29 others and a teacher, some people here say the incident is better not discussed.

But try as it might, Stockton cannot forget.

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Just last week, Janet Taylor heard a siren and began crying. Bryan, her first-grader, talks about Jan. 17 often.

Five of his classmates were wounded. One was killed. He saw it all. Bryan started sleeping in his own room only after the family moved two weeks ago and changed schools.

Eric, Taylor’s third-grader, still has a bullet fragment embedded near his hip. He doesn’t talk much about that morning. But he does spend a lot of time copying the words of songs from the “Bad” tape that entertainer Michael Jackson gave him when he visited the children last month. The visit, Taylor said, “meant a lot.”

“Adults seem to think that after two weeks, it should be over,” Taylor said, but it’s not. “The memories are there, even though the bullet holes are patched.”

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The checks, the letters and the offers of help from across the nation have stopped. Jackson came and went. For the people of Stockton, however, the healing has barely begun.

The county Mental Health Department has identified 280 of Cleveland’s 900 students who will need therapy. Already strapped by a shrunken mental health budget, therapists are finding their task made even more difficult because of language and cultural differences with the children, most of whom are from Southeast Asia. Teachers, so heroic during the attack and since, are reaching their limit and need counseling themselves.

“It’s harder now. People think it’s six weeks after and it should be back to normal, and it’s not. . . ,” Cleveland teacher Lori Mackey said. “It’s frustrating. You tell them exactly what they want to hear: ‘Oh yeah, it’s better.’ ”

In the aftermath of the mass murder, people in Stockton struggle to find some good that came of it all. The tragedy did force the city of 190,000 to reach out to its estimated 30,000 Southeast Asians.

The Stockton Record ran a five-part series on the Southeast Asians. Twelve days after the massacre, more than 3,000 people attended a memorial at the Civic Auditorium.

Civic organizations, business leaders and residents donated everything from cash to a trailer set up at the Cleveland campus for counseling sessions. The year’s Cinco de Mayo parade will be dedicated to the school.

“In the past, I don’t think they paid attention to us. They maybe didn’t know us--didn’t need to know us,” said Ky Hoang of the Vietnamese Voluntary Foundation.

Other people take some solace in the knowledge that their City Council, long mired in internal rivalries and challenges from the outside, voted 9 to 0 to ban assault weapons Feb. 6.

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“It happened here. We had to do something,” said Sidney Turoff, 67, a retired University of the Pacific business finance professor, who first suggested the ban in a letter to the council.

“These were such little kids,” he said. “They were babies, really. They were in a schoolyard, which is the most protective environment we can find for our children.”

The impact of the shooting, followed by the Stockton City Council’s action, extended far beyond Cleveland Elementary School. Cities throughout California have adopted or proposed bans patterned after Stockton’s ordinance.

A survey after the attack by the California Teachers Assn. showed campus security to be the top concern of its 180,000 members, said Edmund Foglia, president of the association. The teachers’ organization was also stirred to step up its lobbying on behalf of a gun-control measure in Sacramento.

“Cleveland could be any school in any neighborhood in this state or this country. . . . When you start killing kids, who are innocent, who have nothing to do with drugs or anything else, the line is drawn,” Foglia said.

Ban Challenged

However, even in Stockton, the fight is on over the weapons ban. One group was formed to recall Mayor Barbara Fass because she led the effort to ban assault rifles. Commercial real estate broker Dale Thurston formed a second group, Citizens for a Better Stockton, and is gathering signatures to place a local initiative on the ballot to repeal the assault weapon ban.

“When we tamper with the Second Amendment, we tamper with the insurance policy for this country,” Thurston declared.

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“I did what I thought was right,” Fass said, back in her office after a day in Sacramento to lobby on behalf of a statewide ban on the guns. “Doing the right thing was far more important than maintaining my office. If that’s the price I have to pay, so be it.”

Voices from Stockton have been powerful in hearings on legislation to ban the guns. On Feb. 10, teacher Mackey traveled to Washington and spoke on behalf of federal legislation to ban assault rifles. Purdy had stood just outside her classroom as he fired, she recalled.

“The look on the man’s face was that of deep concentration,” Mackey told a Senate subcommittee. “He did not look angry or pleased, just determined, determined to hurt innocent children at play. That look is one that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Even after Purdy killed himself, Mackey and her students, thinking that he was still alive, crouched in fear under their desks for 20 minutes until police arrived.

“The children wanted to know what had happened, but all I could tell them was that I didn’t know and that we shouldn’t look,” she said.

Mackey had planned to testify in Sacramento Tuesday for similar state legislation. But she canceled her appearance after the California Teachers Assn. received a threatening letter. The letterhead included a swastika.

“No one is living without fear. We are teaching with one eye out the door,” Mackey said in an interview.

Each time a child who was wounded returns to school, the day is relived. Children jump at strange noises. When someone unexpectedly walks up to a classroom, children need reassurance that it is all right.

Mackey, who teaches deaf children, said her students have selected the one who can hear slightly to act as a lookout while they are on the playground.

Mackey reported that some children cannot make it through a reading lesson without crying. Some children will not venture out to the playground during recess. Others will go out but remain by the classroom doors.

“Teachers are feeling really stressed out. You spend every ounce of energy to get through the day. I hear people saying they haven’t done laundry or gone grocery shopping for weeks,” Mackey said.

Problems extend to other schools too. Stockton school administrator Elena B. Wong told of two children at another elementary school who refused to eat their lunches, fearing the food was poisoned.

Valerie Preston, director of the Stockton Teachers Assn., is urging school administrators to provide additional security at all schools, including higher fences, security guards, intercoms linking the classrooms to the front office and walkie-talkies for yard monitors.

Cleveland teachers want the school painted. Scores of bullet holes in the stucco walls of the school were patched the night of the attack. But the patches are darker than the rest of the faded brown paint, and that is a constant reminder of Purdy. Administrators agree the school ought to be painted but the problem remains: lack of cash.

“You can’t make miracles by sweeping a magic wand,” Wong said.

Teachers also want additional therapists for themselves and their students. But school therapists have spent six months worth of time at Cleveland, and county therapists logged 1,560 hours in the first month after the shooting.

“There are people who are saying it’s best to forget,” said Speed, chief of the therapists of the San Joaquin County Mental Health Department. “That is a psychological process called denial.

‘Still Happening’

“There are people who were definitely affected. They are children, they are parents, there is a teacher whose leg was almost blown off. They cannot turn it off. It is still happening to them.”

The Mental Health Department stationed a therapist at Cleveland full-time, and will send another starting this week. The department is looking for clinic space for the summer. The state Department of Mental Health promises to help pay the costs.

“We are operating as if we’re going to get reimbursed. We don’t have any choice,” Speed said.

The county is bringing outside consultants from a respected treatment center for Southeast Asians in Oakland and from Winnetka, Ill., scene of an attack that left one second-grader dead and five wounded last May.

“We will pay them whatever they’re going to charge because we need to have them,” Speed said.

Social workers using puppets in their therapy discovered that they needed a puppet of a Buddhist monk to help the Asian children. Some Catholic children said Hail Marys when they went to school restrooms. A Cambodian counselor taught Buddhist children a chant to repeat to ease their fears of being alone in restrooms.

One problem for the therapists is that many people who are close to the survivors believe that the less said, the better it will be, Speed and others say.

“Inside, there may be some fear,” said C. Pheng Lo, executive director of the Lao Family Community Inc. “But to complain or talk about it, no. The more they talk, the more they will be frustrated. It’s going to be worse.”

Mental health workers who had to explain the inexplicable to the families of five children are themselves suffering. They have had two tearful group therapy sessions and will have others.

“It sneaks up on you,” Speed said. “You find yourself jumping at loud noises. I don’t like to see anything about assault rifles.”

He even threw away his 9-year-old’s squirt gun because it looked something like an AK-47. The son did not complain.


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