Early in the morning on May 21, 1998, University custodian Janet Taylor was cleaning an off-campus dorm with the radio on when she heard a piece of breaking news that would change her life forever.
While she cleaned, teachers and students in a high school cafeteria in a neighboring town were panicked, angry, confused and wounded. Fifteen-year-old Thurston High School student Kip Kinkel had walked in just after 8 a.m., gun in hand, with no apparent target in mind.
Melissa Taylor, the custodian’s daughter, ventured into the Thurston cafeteria for the first time that morning. She had just transferred from Mohawk High School in Marcola , and she and a new friend wanted to buy hot chocolate before their first class.
Remembering a tragedy
|As part of today’s 10-year anniversary of the Thurston High School shooting, the school will observe a moment of silence this morning for the two students and the shooter’s parents who were killed in 1998. After school, a brief commemoration ceremony for the community will take place outside the building.|
Melissa Taylor never got her hot chocolate. Instead, she suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the shooting that killed two, injured 24 and affected thousands in the Eugene-Springfield area. Some have moved on and others still mourn, but no one has completely forgotten.
“In some ways, it feels very long ago, but in other ways, it feels like it was just yesterday,” said Cathy Paine, who used to be a psychologist at Thurston and still works in the Springfield School District. “The images are very vivid.”
Former Thurston student Brandon Lasher can still recall specific details of that chaotic morning 10 years ago. He had gotten to school early to attend the Senior Men’s Excellence Breakfast, and he still had some extra time before class. He went to look for his meteorology teacher in the back of the lunch room, but no one was there.
Suddenly, he heard a popping sound.
“I turned around to see someone firing into the lunch room,” Lasher said. “I even saw my friend fall to the ground. I found out later he had been shot six times in the back.”
His friend, Mikael Nickolauson, was pronounced dead at the scene of gunshot wounds.
In the hours and days following, the community was frozen in a state of disbelief.
“We just thought, ‘This couldn’t be happening here,'” Paine said. “We didn’t believe that could be happening to us.”
The events that morning turned the abstract idea of a school shooting into a shocking reality that hit closer to home than anyone could have imagined.
“This community learned that we are not isolated from the gun violence from the rest of the nation, that an unspeakable tragedy could occur in our own community,” Lasher said.
Once some in the area experienced the direct effects of such a monumental tragedy, though, they saw the importance of acknowledging and learning from school shootings.
Current Thurston principal Ed Mendelssohn wasn’t there 10 years ago – this year is his fifth at the school – but he feels the effect of the shooting and does his best to foster increased communication between teachers and students, something he believes “helps create a feeling of belonging” that could stop an angry and resentful student from doing something violent and irrational.
Even though motivated murderers sometimes can’t be stopped, Lasher said, “the shooting allowed us to look for warning signs from the killer that were ignored by the entire community.”
Paine agreed. “We need to be much more aware and much more connected to students,” she said. Teachers need to be looking for warning signs, sharing information about the students, talking about what they can do to help them. They need to focus on mental health.”
The events of May 21, 1998 increased Paine’s interest in school shootings from a psychological perspective. She often thinks about the driving force behind the seemingly recent trend.
“If you study school shootings, you know they’ve been going on for a long time, but we didn’t hear about them until the 1990s,” Paine said.
However, shootings in 1998 were more frequent than they had been in years past. The shooting at Thurston was the fifth school shooting to happen that year.
A possible cause of the increasing frequency of school shootings is the “societal permeation of violent video games” and “a pervasiveness of violence in our culture,” Paine said.
Other theories suggest school shootings aren’t necessarily more common, just more overhyped in the media. Janet Taylor recalled that “reporters were trying to get up the back stairwell” to talk to victims and their parents at the hospital.
Media hype may be the reason that Mendelssohn will keep the 10th anniversary of the events fairly quiet at Thurston. On Wednesday morning, there will be a moment of silence for the two student victims who died in 1998, as well as Kinkel’s parents, whom Kinkel killed the morning before the school shooting. After school there will be a small commemoration ceremony. A large banner that expresses the school’s commitment to fostering a safe and welcoming community will hang on the fence outside the school.
“The trick about something like this is, it’s the kind of thing that demands a certain amount of reverence, but at the same time you don’t want a lot of extravagance,” Mendelssohn said. His main goal was to avoid heavy-handedness but also to respect the importance of the event.
“This is a true part of our history,” Mendelssohn said. “For the tremendous amount of loss it’s created, I think it’s important to reach out and let people know that it has not been forgotten, that we’re a community, that we still believe in one another and make sure we take care of one another.”
After 10 years, the shooting is no longer at the forefront of the minds and daily lives of those who were there, but for some, its negative impacts are hard to ignore.
Melissa Taylor still experiences problems in her shoulder, where the bullet is still lodged. She has had operations since the shooting, but nothing can remove the memories of that day.
“She has these recurring nightmares this time of year,” Janet Taylor said. Otherwise, “she does well. She does a lot better than I do. She’s getting married June 28, she’s working downtown in Eugene in a doctor’s office, she’s moving on with her life.”
Recently, Melissa Taylor personally forgave Kip Kinkel for the physically and emotionally harmful shots he fired, but Janet Taylor still hasn’t forgiven him. Every year on May 21, she takes the day off to do something fun or relaxing and keep her mind off of the events of the day that changed her life.
“I just hope life can go on,” Taylor said.