School shootings are becoming a part of our culture, our news cycle, our discourse. But before Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Newtown, Conn., there was Greenwood, S.C.
I was reporting for The State newspaper in Columbia in 1988. Monday was my day off and I left for Clemson early in the morning to work on a freelance project. Sept. 26 was a beautiful, clear day.
As I headed back to Columbia in the early afternoon, I switched from NPR to a local Greenwood radio station, and there I heard the news. A shooting. At a school. Details were sketchy, but all local stations had cut from their scheduled programming to cover the story.
Driving into Greenwood, I had no idea where Oakland Elementary School was, so I went to Greenwood City Hall. It was a lucky break. At Oakland Elementary, the reporters were cordoned off and authorities were giving out little information, but at city hall information poured in from the school and employees freely shared it with the press.
This is what had happened: A 19-year-old boy named Jamie Wilson had walked into Oakland Elementary around noon. He carried a .22-caliber pistol he had taken from his grandmother’s house and loaded it with hollow-point bullets. His first stop was the cafeteria where he started shooting at children and adults, hitting several. He walked out of the cafeteria and into a restroom, reloaded his gun, then proceeded down the hall to a third-grade classroom where he opened fire again. When his gun was empty, he dropped it and climbed out of a classroom window. He was confronted by a teacher who ordered him to stop. Wilson complied and waited until police arrived and arrested him. He offered no resistance.
When it was over, 11 people were shot. Shequila Bradley, 8, died in her classroom, while her classmate, Tequila Thomas, 8, died three days later in the local hospital. At some point in a day that remains a blur in my memory, I found myself at the hospital, where I performed the wretched journalistic task of asking a parent to talk about his child’s death.
At the shooter’s trial a few months later, the sad life of Jamie Wilson was unveiled for public inspection. Wilson was schizophrenic, the product of four generations of mental illness, the object of physical and psychological abuse by both parents. On several occasions, his father had pointed a gun at him and threatened to kill him. Wilson’s schoolmates had made fun of his weight and his shabby clothes. According to medical testimony, Wilson had been in and out of psychiatric centers from the age of 14. At 19, he was kicked off his father’s insurance plan and received no further help. A few months later he walked into Oakland Elementary.
Jamie Wilson was convicted of murder and became the first person sentenced under South Carolina’s unique guilty-but-mentally-ill statute. Today, he is 43 years old and still on death row.
America is a land of lofty promises and platitudes. But our social agenda and our economic priorities describe a different country. Mental health facilities have been closing for years for lack of funding, yet American cities have spent $16 billion in the last two decades to build stadiums and arenas for their professional sports teams.
The Republican Party works ferociously to deny contraceptives and other healthcare services to women, and it works just as hard to ensure the right of Americans to own as many assault weapons, bullets, and high-capacity magazines as they can afford.
We live in a violent and contradictory society, a society with too many guns and too little healthcare, a society in which the most vulnerable are often the first victims of our malignant public policy. It’s time we changed that.