Fatal junior high shooting still haunts 16 years later

Gunfire that sounded like a firecracker killed 2 teens

May 02, 1999|By MARK RIBBING

IT HAD to be a firecracker. .....The quick popping sound that interrupted our seventh-grade English class could be nothing else. It was Jan. 20, 1983, a Thursday, and my classmates and I were sitting through a grammar lesson. There were 10 minutes to go until lunch.

Our school, Parkway South Junior High, was an orderly, well-regarded place ensconced in a western suburb of St. Louis. The pupils were predominantly middle-class and, on the whole, we took our budding educations seriously. In our community, a bang in the distance meant a firecracker, a cap gun or a backfiring engine -- petty fractures in the white noise of suburban life.

On this day, though, there was something strange in the loud, sharp bang, and in the ones that soon followed it. For starters, they did not seem to be from off in the distance, but from directly beneath us.

Beneath us, though, were other classrooms, and who would have the nerve to set off firecrackers in class? At South Junior, even the most audacious pubescent hell-raisers saved their dime-store ordnance for the woods or the deserted parking lots or some other harmless and secluded place.

Sure, the sounds could be something else. We were all familiar enough with the sound of television gunfire to recognize an impossible possibility.

"Uh-oh. Somebody got shot," a student joked. Someone else chuckled. The rest of us ignored him, forgot the sounds, silently urged the minutes forward. The teacher droned on.

The clock finally released us. When we reached the cafeteria, it was clear that something was wrong. The midday meal was normally a chatty, relaxed oasis in our highly structured class schedules. Not today. Teachers and administrators rushed about furiously, looks of extreme worry firing among them in a weird telepathy that sizzled over our heads.

We sat at the long, 1950s-style Formica lunch tables, puzzled. No food was being served. I had brought my lunch, but for some reason I felt the need to hold my unopened brown bag discreetly beneath the table, out of sight. Others were doing the same.

Then everything happened at once. In the wall-length windows, we could see ambulances, sirens screaming, rushing to the front of the school. Immediately, vast blue curtains were pulled over the windows.

The principal, a kind man named Don Senti, came onto the public address system. His voice was especially familiar to me; my father was an English teacher in the school district, and Senti was a long-standing friend of our family. On that day, though, his opening words came from another planet: "May I have your attention please. There has been a shooting."

A collective gasp sucked the nervous patter and morbid joking from the room. Some kids began crying. Others became very quiet. Senti's announcement offered no details of what had happened, but assured us that we were in no danger. Swiftly, inevitably, we created and passed along rumors to fill our void of knowledge. Only later in the day, and in somber days to come, would we learn what had happened.

I had never met David Lawler. He was 14, two years older than I. I knew his sister, a smart and diligent girl who was one of the best students in my class, but I can offer no first-hand insights as to why he did what he did.

According to eyewitness accounts and news reports, Lawler stood in his study hall with two .22-caliber handguns he had pulled out of his blue satin gym bag. He shot two of his classmates, Randall Koger and Greg Palmer, both 15.

Lawler then shot himself in the head and died instantly. Koger and Palmer were rushed to hospitals. Koger was pronounced dead, but Palmer survived.

When investigators went through Lawler's gym bag, they found a three-page suicide note, a knife and 100 rounds of ammunition.

Lawler's full motives have never been made clear. He had supposedly been upset over disparaging comments Koger and Palmer had made about his brother, but such garden-variety adolescent jibing doesn't suffice to explain why someone like Lawler -- universally described as bright, mannerly, and outgoing -- would engage in such an act of violence.

For a few days after the shootings, images of my prim suburban school were flashed around the country. If it could happen at Parkway South Junior High, the message went, it could happen anywhere. Newspapers and television stations interviewed child-psychology experts and listed "warning signs" that would tell a parent or teacher if an adolescent was about to snap.

Above all, there was the hope -- repeated again and again -- that the nation could actually learn something from our sad and bizarre experience, and that nothing like this would happen again.

South Junior healed quickly. Within weeks, the school was basically back to normal. Room 110, the site of the shootings, was carpeted and repainted. The pupils who witnessed the bloodshed apparently managed to balm their own horrible memories and move on.

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