Boy's fatal shooting stirs grief and anger

13-year-old's friends and their parents sort through feelings

'Not used to...violence'

April 25, 2000|By Tanika White and Liz Atwood | Tanika White and Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The day they found out that the bullet in Tanun "Byrd" Wichainaraphong's head had really killed him, fifth-graders Jonathan Kaufman, Ben Ridgeway and two friends gathered in front of another boy's house and took a poll.

"Do you have a gun?" they asked, turning from one to the other. "Do you?"

It was a meeting that would have been unimaginable a week ago in the peaceful, flower-filled Fairways neighborhood in Ellicott City -- 10-year-olds taking a safety survey -- but one that illustrates how the community has been affected by the accidental death of one of its own.

Wichainaraphong, 13, who was known as Byrd, was playing video games with friends Wednesday when a 15-year-old showed off his .22-caliber rifle, a bullet was accidentally fired and Byrd was struck in the back of the head. He died two days later at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

For many of the children in the neighborhood, Byrd's death is the biggest, most tragic event they've known.

They've seen shootings on TV. They've heard about them in other places.

"There was that thing in Colorado," they say when asked to remember something so awful. Or, "Oh, yeah, that Joseph Palczynski guy."

But nothing so close to home.

"I would never think that something like that would happen around here," said Erin McPhail, 13, who went to school with Byrd at Burleigh Manor Middle. "It's like, this is a really safe community. We're not used to having any violence."

McPhail said the middle school is an exceptionally peaceful one, void of drugs, weapons and schoolyard scuffles.

"Our principal, she has a rule that you treat everyone else like you want to be treated, and we follow that rule to the `T,' " McPhail said. "We're all friends, basically, every grade."

Knowing how close-knit the pupils are, the Howard County school system's crisis intervention team is planning to be at Burleigh Manor today, the pupils' first day back from spring break, providing opportunities for children to grieve and be comforted.

The principal will make an all-school announcement in the morning, and a letter will go out to parents tonight.

At school

Throught the day, counselors will be in every class where Byrd was enrolled throughout the day, and other trained adults will be available throughout the school.

Andrew Elgort, a school psychologist and the district's crisis coordinator, said Burleigh Manor Principal Barbara Hoffman is planning to form a committee of pupils, staff and parents to come up with a way to remember Byrd.

Elgort said the crisis team is expecting a long, difficult day.

"I think it's going to be really hard for a lot of kids," Elgort said. "Byrd was a very popular young man and apparently a very lovely young man to know. He had a lot of friends."

Because such tragedies happen so infrequently in Howard County, he said, the shock is particularly acute.

"It will take time to heal," Elgort said. "But we hope that the buffer [of spring break and the weekend] has taken away just a little of the shock and the denial."

Even as late as yesterday, parents and Byrd's friends remained in disbelief -- and anger.

"Where were the parents of the boy?" asked Dan Pfeiffer, whose 9-year-old son played football with Byrd. "What was he doing with whiskey in his room and a gun?! I just don't get it."

It's unnerving, Pfeiffer said, to know that your children can encounter guns at friends' and neighbors' homes, no matter how safe you try to keep your home.

Parents' concerns

Even when parents teach their children to walk away from guns and question the parents of their children's playmates, they cannot be sure their children will be safe, said John Price of Carroll County, whose 13-year-old son was killed in a similar way two years ago.

Price said his son John told his playmate to put the gun away and was leaving the room when he was shot.

For months, Price and his wife, Carole, refused to let their other two children visit friends. When their son Michael begged to play at another friend's house, they questioned the child and his mother about whether guns were in the home. Both told him none were and reluctantly the Prices let their son go to play for an hour.

"The whole time he was there we were freaking out," Price said.

Michael returned unharmed, but a week later the friend's father informed them that there were guns in the home after all.

"Teaching isn't the sole answer," Price said. "The technology needs to be changed. Kids are curious."

Since their son's death, the couple have promoted tougher gun safety laws, including the recent requirement that handguns sold in Maryland be equipped with trigger locks.

Accidental shootings

The National Safe Kids Campaign notes that 142 children under age 14 were killed in accidental shootings in 1997.

"Children should not have access to firearms, no ifs, ands or buts," said Genny O'Donnell, manager of program development for the organization.

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