A first-grade classroom became the latest bloodstained stage in the nation's rash of school shootings Tuesday as a 6-year-old boy pointed a gun at a classmate and then fired. The 6-year-old girl crumpled to the floor, fatally wounded.
Officials in this working-class community 60 miles north of Detroit were investigating reports that the two children had quarreled on the playground at Buell Elementary School on Monday. Relatives identified the dead girl as Kayla Rolland.
Unsure whether the shooting was planned or accidental, police sought to find out how he obtained the weapon.
The boy's father is serving time in the county jail, and the boy lived with his mother, a man referred to as an uncle and a younger sibling, Genesee County Prosecutor Arthur A. Busch said. He didn't know what the father was charged with.
"We want to get to the bottom of how that gun got into that little boy's hands--who had that gun and where it was left," Busch said.
Those are the sort of tangible, evidentiary questions that emerge each time a quiet campus is riven by gunfire. But the question of why is especially haunting this time, because of the age of the suspect and his victim.
The boy, whose name was not disclosed by authorities, was questioned by police and released Tuesday evening. Police officials would not say where he was sent, but earlier in the day, Police Chief Eric King said the youth would be put into the custody of the state child welfare agency.
Despite Michigan's toughening of statutes to allow authorities to pursue adult prosecutions of children, American common law virtually rules out the possibility of establishing criminal intent in those so young.
"Obviously, he has done a very terrible thing today, but legally, he can't be held criminally responsible," the prosecutor said.
Police will look hard at filing criminal negligence charges against any adult culpable in letting the gun fall into the boy's hands. Manslaughter, punishable by a 15-year jail term, is one possible charge if adult involvement is proved, Busch said.
Students in another first-grade class nearby did not hear the loud report from the gun. Darnisha Bristol--who lives down the street from Buell Elementary--said her 6-year-old son, Cornell, was oblivious until he saw his teacher head for the classroom door just after 10 a.m. "The first sign that anything was wrong," she said, "was when his teacher locked their door."
Across the hall, Kayla's class was filing out toward the school library. Five students were still in the classroom when the shot crackled. A teacher was standing in the doorway when the suspect, who had the gun hidden in his pants, suddenly pointed it at Kayla and fired once, striking her in the neck.
The boy ran into a bathroom down the hall and dropped the gun into a trash bin, Busch said. A teacher and an administrator held the boy until police arrived.
Busch and Chief King said they were unsure where the youth got the .32-caliber gun, but that a records check revealed the weapon had been reported stolen in December. Officials said it had been seen in the boy's home.
Tuesday night, investigators searched the home and found another stolen firearm--a 12-gauge shotgun--and "some other evidence we're in the process of sorting through," Busch told Associated Press. He would not elaborate.
The wounded girl was transported to Hurley Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 10:29 a.m., a hospital spokeswoman said. As police and paramedics headed for Buell, the school's principal told teachers over the public address system to shut and lock their classroom doors. School officials said there were more than 450 children inside when the shot sounded.
Bristol said she learned about the incident when "somebody from the school called and said there was an accident and I should get over to a church down the road to wait for my kids."
Heading outside, Bristol noticed a crowd of adults and children--and a brace of police vehicles, ambulances and television news vans parked just beyond Buell's pink-brick walls. Alarmed, she ran. Her thoughts were "boiling up inside" by the time she reached the Greater Friendship Church. Inside, parents were pacing and wailing for their children. Hearing a woman scream about a shooting, Bristol lurched from room to room, looking for the faces of Cornell and his 5-year-old brother, Deontae.
They arrived several minutes later, filing out of buses driven from the rear of the school. Bristol hugged them--and then began venting fury at school officials.
"We love our school, but they have not told us a thing today," Bristol said angrily. She said that she and other parents plan to keep their children home from school until administrators "prove to us that it's safe to go back."
School administrators canceled classes for today but said counselors would be available to defuse grief and fear among students and parents. Buell has security guards but no metal detectors.
Mount Morris school Supt. Ira Rutherford said that he received a telephone call after the shooting from President Clinton, who promised to help Buell link up with officials in Littleton, Colo., and other communities scarred by school shootings.
Clinton decried the episode during a speech at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in West Palm Beach, Fla. "The [suspect] was 6 years old," an incredulous Clinton said. "How did that child get that gun? Why could the child fire the gun? If we had the technology today to put in these child safety locks, why don't we do it?"
As they have after previous school shootings, political leaders were quick to offer solutions that fell along predictable ideological lines.
Declaring "enough is enough," Vice President Al Gore--campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination--told a crowd in Cudahy, Calif., that the pro-gun lobby has blocked "common sense" legislation. Gore's Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, appeared with relatives of shooting victims in San Francisco and said that political "leaders have been almost useless" on the issue. Bradley, who proposes licensing of all handguns, said that "Washington either protects the gun lobby . . . or talks tough, then does nothing."
Several gun-control measures are frozen in committee on Capitol Hill. A bill to require background checks at all gun shows passed the Senate after the massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School in April, but it flickered out when it reached the House. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) predicted the Buell shooting would jump-start anti-gun sentiment. But his House Judiciary colleague, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), said legislation "will continue to languish" without Democratic compromise.
The Republican-dominated Michigan Legislature has bolstered laws covering juvenile offenders in recent years to allow prosecutors to seek adult sanctions or a blend of adult and juvenile penalties against young criminals of any age. Those stiffened laws allowed a Michigan judge to sentence 13-year-old convicted murderer Nathaniel Abraham last month to serve time in a juvenile center until he is 21. Abraham was just 11 when he gunned down a stranger.
The Buell Elementary suspect "is a boy who could conceivably spend the rest of his life in prison without parole," speculated Frank E. Vandervoort, who heads the University of Michigan's Child Welfare Law Resource Center. Vandervoort said that even if the youth is not charged as an adult, the state "may have gone too far" in implementing mechanisms that press for heavier sanctions against the youngest defendants.
Braun reported from Washington and Cart from Michigan. Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Matea Gold, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and researcher John Beckham also contributed to this story.