In this article we will look at two school shootings; both of them unique from what we consider “normal circumstances” for a school shooting. The first incident was aimed to target the school but did not take place inside the school. Instead, the attack came from the perpetrator’s home located across the street from the school itself. The second incident took place inside a school but instead of students or faculty being the target, the school was merely used as the gunman’s shooting spot.
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The first shooting took place on Monday January 29th, 1979 in San Diego, California. The shooter was sixteen year old Brenda Spencer who was widely known as a problem child and a drug abuser with a violent streak. She reportedly, on multiple occasions, used her BB gun to shoot out the windows at Grover Cleveland Elementary school which was across the street from where she lived. Despite this behavior, her father purchased her a .22 rifle and ammunition for Christmas at the end of 1978.
After she received this Christmas gift, it is reported that Spencer started telling her classmates that she was going to do something “to get on TV.” On the morning of Monday the 29th, the school principal, Burton Wragg, was unlocking the gate to the school when Spencer began to fire. Wragg and a custodian Michael Suchar were two victims killed by Spencer as she went on to wound nine children while they tried to enter the school. After approximately twenty minutes of shooting the police surrounded Spencer’s home for six hours before she agreed to surrender. When asked for a motive for the shooting Spencer replied, “I just don’t like Mondays. I did this because it’s a way to cheer up the day. Nobody likes Mondays.” She was sentenced to 25 years to life at the California Institution for Women after pleading guilty to two murder and assault with a deadly weapon charges.
The unique circumstance in this incident – that of the shooter attacking the school from a separate and secure location – has to be remembered. As active shooter / school attack events evolve, there will inevitably be a repeat of circumstance. Your active shooter training should include information about prior events that were unique or sufficiently different to warrant making sure officers are aware of them and stay alert to the possibility.
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The next shooting is interesting because instead of the shooter targeting the school, he used it as his place to fire from. The shooter was seventeen year old Anthony Barbaro who was an honor student and star marksman for his rifle team at Olean High School in Olean, New York. Anthony himself was a smart child having ranked 8th in his senior class. He had been awarded a Regents Scholarship to New York University, and was inducted into the National Honor Society in February of 1974.
Those who knew him described him as quiet and the principal said, “He was more of a loner than not.” One of those present when the shooting occurred said that Barbaro had never caused any disciplinary problems at the school that they were aware of. While police could never come up with a conclusive motive, one of Barbaro’s rifle teammates said that Barbaro had talked of wanting to “hold up” the Olean Armory and engage in a stand-off with the police. Barbaro had also recently tried out for the bowling team, before the shooting, but did not make the final roster.
On December 30th, 1974 Barbaro left his home in his mother’s car and told his brother that he was going target shooting. He arrived at the high school around 2:50 p.m. and entered the school, which closed for the holidays, through an opened side entrance and proceeded to the third floor. Once he reached the third floor, Barbaro set off a coke bottle filled with gasoline and a wick (a “Molotov cocktail”). Barbaro tried to gain entrance into the student council room but it was locked, prompting him to shoot the lock off. After entering the room he tied the door shut at which point the school’s fire alarm went off and alerted a 12-man custodial crew in the basement. The superintendent told one of the crew members, Earl Metcaff, to investigate the third floor to see what was wrong. After reaching the third floor Metcaff was met by another custodian and told to evacuate because he had heard gunshots. Metcaff continued on despite this and was confronted by Barbaro by the student council room and was shot and killed. After this Barbaro turned his attention to outside the school and began firing at those outside.
Fire trucks, local police, and New York State Troopers eventually responded to the shooting. By 5:20 p.m. police had surrounded the school and a National Guard tank had arrived to remove the wounded. Right before nightfall two state troopers entered the school wearing gas masks and proceeded to the school council room where they threw in tear gas and entered to find Barbaro passed out wearing a defective gas mask. After ensuring no injuries, Barbaro was taken to the Olean City Jail. In total Barbaro had fired 31 times, killing three and wounding eleven others. Eight of the wounded were firefighters responding to the fire alarm at the school. Police searched Barbaro’s room at his home to find homemade smoke bombs, gasoline, glass bottles, and empty propane tanks. Police also found bomb making recipes and a journal detailing Barbaro’s plan for the shooting. Barbaro was charged with three counts of second-degree murder, six counts of first-degree assault, and five counts fist-degree reckless endangerment. Barbara committed suicide after a preliminary hearing on November 1st, 1975.
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These two incidents show that with regard to school shootings, while the dominant behavior is that the shooter will go directly into the school, that’s not always the rule. Instead, they may commit the act from anywhere in proximity to the school or they may even use the school to their advantage if the opportunity arises for them to do so.
All officers are encouraged to keep these two incidents in mind during active shooter response training and during any actual mass shooting attacks they might have to respond to. Assumptions can get you killed and, in this case, we have historical events to learn from.