Heartland News Investigation: Safety in our Schools

(Source: KFVS)
(Source: KFVS)
(Source: KFVS)
(Source: KFVS)

(KFVS) - Twenty years ago, schools like Heath Middle School, formerly Heath High School, in West Paducah, Kentucky were thought to be safe.

That changed when a student opened fire in the lobby on December 1, 1997.

It was right before the start of classes. Students had just wrapped up a prayer circle when a classmate, someone they knew, someone many considered a friend, started shooting.

Eight students were hit by the gunfire. Three teenage girls, Nicole Hadley; Jessica James; and Kayce Steger, were killed.

Among the survivors was Missy Jenkins, who was 15 years old at the time. She was paralyzed from the chest down.

The shooter, Michael Carneal, was 14 at the time and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole in 25 years.

Missy Jenkins remembers

Missy, like the rest of the students that day, couldn't make sense of what was happening. Before she knew it, she was on the ground and couldn't move.

Her life was dramatically changed in an instant.

"I remember everything that happened that morning," she said.

On December 1, 1997, the Heath High School sophomore had just finished praying with a group that morning.

"I was on my way to get by backpack and go to my first class," she remembered. "Once I got halfway there, I heard the first shot...saw someone get shot."

The sights, the sounds, are still fresh in her mind.

"It was three slow pops, then there was a spray and I was shot and fell to the ground."

She said it was like fainting.

"My entire body went completely numb. I felt like my hearing left and there was ringing in my ears."

She laid there confused and realized she couldn't feel her legs.

"That's when my twin sister looked at me and said, 'Be strong...don't die. I'll be back to check on you.'"

As she waited for an ambulance to arrive, Missy Jenkins looked around, trying to make sense of the chaos. She looked over and saw a fellow student with teachers by her side, praying.

"I was basically watching her die, and she did die later on," Missy said.

The heartache was just beginning.

The community gathered right after to pray for the family and the students left traumatized by what they witnessed.

From her hospital bed, Missy Jenkins watched on national television the funeral service for the three girls who died in the shooting. Missy, unable to move or comprehend her own situation, felt blessed.

"With the bullet entering my left shoulder, it was a .22 and it bounced around my body. It hit my lung, but also missed every artery and organ in my body beside my lung and my spinal cord."

She then learned she was paralyzed, and her response was anything but what you'd expect.

"I was ok with it because I was getting a second chance at life," she said.

Missy made it her mission to share her story. Instead of being angry or bitter, she chose joy.

Miss Jenkins' life now

Three innocent lives were taken on that December day 20 years ago.

For those who survived, what happened will always be a part of them, but it doesn't have to define them.

For Missy Jenkins Smith, despite being paralyzed, she wakes up every day choosing to be happy.

She has spent 20 years in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down. She refused to feel sorry for herself and doesn't want anyone else to either.

"I'm blessed to have what I have and I don't want my life to be angry," she said.

Right after the shooting, Missy said she quickly accepted her fate.

"We all have positives and negatives in our lives, but if we dwell on those negatives, we're not going to get where we want to go."

Part of the healing process included a visit to the prison to talk to Michael Carneal face-to-face.

"I did forgive him and I think a lot of people have trouble forgiving someone," she said. "I gave that forgiveness for myself."

Which she said freed her, giving her a chance to not focus on what the shooter did, but rather the life she still had to live.

Missy went back to Heath High School where she graduated, then went on to attend college at Murray State University.

"While I was there, I did meet my future husband," she said.

They have been married 11 years.

"If I hadn't made that choice to be happy, I doubt my husband would have wanted to be with the angry girl over there. He said he liked how I was smiling and was happy, he didn't notice the wheelchair anymore."

Missy didn't know if she would be able to have children, but to her joy, she was able to get pregnant. She and her husband are proud parents to two boys, Logan and Carter.

"I'm blessed, very blessed, to have everything I've ever wanted," she said. "Just because I don't walk doesn't mean I can't be happy."

She said she chooses to be happy every day. She even wrote a book with that title, hoping to inspire people to see the good in life and not dwell on the negative.

Twenty years later, Missy is still sharing her story in schools across the country, including ones closer to home, like at South Marshall Middle School.

"It builds an awareness that having someone like her come in and talk and then relate it so geographically close to us," said Shannon Soloman-Principal, South Marshall Middle School.

Soloman said bullying is a topic her district takes seriously, saying there is a lot to be learned from Missy and the Heath tragedy.

"We hope that strikes an emotional chord with our students," said Soloman.

Because of what happened to Missy and her classmates, she wanted to make a difference. Part of that includes what she does for a living. She's a counselor to middle and high school students.

"They're sent to us so we can help them set goals for themselves and for them to have someone to talk to," said Missy.

She hopes to reach someone like Michael Carneal, who claims he was bullied or to reach the bully and help them see the harm they cause.

"Knowing I was a visual for what violence can do made it more of something I wanted to share with others because I didn't need video or pictures because I was living that example," Missy said.

She knows she's the woman she is today because of what happened to her in the school lobby at Heath two decades ago.

"Even though you go through things that happen in your life that you don't control, you are in control after that," she said. "You can live your life and be a happy person."

Missy has since written a second book, "Lessons from a School Shooting Survivor: How to find the good in others and live a life of love and peace."

Missy says it is primarily geared toward middle and high school students and their teachers.

There are classroom activities at the end of each chapter.

She said the premise of the book is that each of us has a unique story. She said if we respect that about each other and then apply six principles to everything we think, do and say every day we can find the love and peace we so desire, and it will spread from person to person.

Her most recent book, and "I Choose to be Happy" are both available on Amazon.

Security now at McCracken County Schools

The current superintendent of McCracken County schools, Brian Harper, is a western Kentucky native so of course, he vividly remembered everything that happened at Heath.

He said schools in his district have safety and emergency plans, along with drills conducted throughout the year.

"We have officers in our buildings," he said. "Actually, we have a supervisor of those sworn officers. He has cameras in all of the buildings. He works very closely with our maintenance department, making sure doors, all the locks and handles are up to speed and working properly."

The superintendent also said all of the schools in his district have safety and emergency plans, along with drills conducted throughout the year.

School security through the years

What happened in the Heath High School lobby, what happened in Arkansas, Oregon and Littleton, Colorado, had Heartland school districts scrambling for better ways to keep your kids safe.

Some of the measures were temporary, others permanent, but they all had the same goal in mind.

Older school buildings, many in rural settings, Heartland schools face unique challenges in the constantly changing effort to keep our kids safe.

Some districts chose more dramatic measures like metal detectors and backpack searches, buzzers and locks on all doors.

However, the reality is not every door always stays locked, as one of our news producers found out in Cape Girardeau in 2006.

He walked into the school, past the band office with a lot of kids inside, walked down the hallway and past the office, past the choir room and so on.

"When he passes the office and he wanders through the building, he doesn't have a visitors tag on," the principal at the time said. "He should have been questioned, he should have been talked to. That's something we're going to work on."

Other schools opted to take out traditional school staples like lockers.

"Lockers give students an opportunity for students to hide things they shouldn't have at school that may present a safety problem or concern, or something illegal," they said in Perry County, Mo.

New technology gives districts new options. With cameras, buzzers and locked down campuses, schools now had better control over who got access during class time.

"I think it's great, I think it puts parents at ease, helps us feel safer that they're monitoring who's coming in and out of the buildings," they said in Jackson, Mo.

Following the Sandy Hook School shooting in 2012, schools in all the Heartland states moved to require all schools to hold active shooter safety drills.

"Being the bad guy was hard for me."

The training became very real for a Poplar Bluff teacher in 2012.

"I had a rubber gun and I had to point it at my co-workers and pretend to be shooting them."

Keeping students safe also means keeping them inside of school buildings. That's why many districts did away with open campus policies that used to allow older students to leave the building and walk to an area store or fast food restaurant during their lunch break.

School districts renovate buildings or build new ones on a regular basis. The goal with each is to keep students safe inside while keeping any potential threats or dangers outside.

In the Sikeston School District, construction of a new elementary school will begin in the spring.

A school spokeswoman said making sure it is secure is a top priority.

There are more than 100 cameras keeping eyes on all the schools in the district and quarterly safety meetings are held to talk about any items that may be a concern to students and staff.

A new challenge for school security officials these days is a cell phone. On that phone is Facebook, Twitter and other social media that can expose cyberbullying and other threats.

That's why many school districts work with cyber investigators. Those detectives can investigate any online or social media threats to see if they're valid.

Detective Scott Phelps with the Cyber Crimes Task Force out of Poplar Bluff, said most threats he investigates are tips they get from students and school officials; and surprisingly bullying isn't among the top crimes.

"Bullying online is one of the most under-reported things out there," Phelps said. "Very few of the actual incidents are reported."

According to a group that tracks gun violence on school grounds, since the Newtown Connecticut shooting in December 2012, on average, there's been one shooting a week at schools in the United States.

That's a hard number to hear and an even harder one for school leaders to ignore.

School leaders in Poplar Bluff made changes district-wide to keep children safe.

Inside Poplar Bluff High School, there's something always keeping an eye on you.

Corporal Richard Knapp is the school resource officer and he's in charge of the eyes in the sky.

The cameras are used to monitor the high schoolers now, but this building used to be for fifth and sixth graders before the new addition upgrades.

"This campus was a closed campus...it used to be all under one roof," he said.

The ever-growing population made them move the high school here, making it a closed campus, unlike their previous buildings. This keeps Vice Principal Michael Owen feeling more secure.

Jennifer Richardson is the principal of Oak Grove Elementary School. They also have been given upgrades that all have safety in mind.

"This area is brand new...this is actually our first year to access this new foyer and it just makes it more secure," she said. "Our entrance is much better than it was at the old building."

Middle school Principal Brad Owings has seen similar changes. His campus is where the senior high school used to be but a new building has closed it off to the outside.

"That's at the front of all we do," he said. "We try to keep kids safe."

All the schools that were upgraded try to keep an eye on students and their safety.

A $50 million levy tax in 2014 helped pay for all the changes in Poplar Bluff.

Heath High School Memorial

Work continues on a new public memorial to the three students killed and five others injured in the shooting.

The current memorial is inside the school and has limited access. The new memorial is across from the school.

Families of the girls killed are embracing the new location.

"Just the fact that she and all the other victims are still thought of, that's what, that's what counts," said Sabrina Steger, mother of victim Kayce Steger.

Christina Ellegood, the sister of victim Nichole Hadley, said, "I look at this as a positive memorial and a way that we can make a positive impact on peoples' lives.

The memorial cost $80,000 to build.

Securing a college campus

In 2007, we saw how vulnerable a college campus can be when a 23-year-old man killed 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech.

With two more college campus shootings in the next three years, we saw Heartland universities step up security.

At Southern Illinois University, keeping students safe is a joint effort.

Carbondale's Police Department has a long-standing commitment to the safety of children in the city's elementary and high school districts.

Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said technology, and hands-on safety measures make the difference.

"And that is where not only cameras but security access doorways, and secure pathways along with the addition of law enforcement personnel through the school resource officer program has certainly enhanced the safety of our schoolchildren," he said.

But the city Grubbs protects is home to another, dynamic community with its own safety needs and challenges, Southern Illinois University.

"There's a long-standing partnership between the Carbondale Police Department and the SIU Police Department on shared databases, interoperable communications, sharing of resources through narcotics units, through investigative procedures into incidents that occur on the campus or in the community."

SIU Department of Public Safety Chief Ben Newman said the two departments share vital information that not only helps prevent crime but also keeps both departments prepared if a serious incident does happen.

Officers from both departments also train together monthly on a joint use swat team and bomb squad.

Chief Grubbs said cooperation between departments should bring all parents peace of mind.

"We certainly care about those SIU students that come here to get their education. And we also feel a sense of responsibility in helping to keep them safe.  And that is absolutely what we are committed to doing here," Grubbs said.

According to the FBI's uniform crime reporting numbers, SIU recently ranked 86th in the nation for safety.


We've learned a lot from the heartbreak that took place in the Heath High School lobby 20 years ago.

If you think someone is considering violence at your school, here are some ways to report it anonymously:

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