BENTON, Ky. – Stunned by a deadly school shooting, a grief-stricken Kentucky community is struggling to answer an agonizing question: How could one of its own have unleashed such terror?
Police have not publicly identified the 15-year-old accused of opening fire Tuesday at Marshall County High School. With few details coming from authorities, people are left to wonder what triggered the attack that killed two teenagers, injured 18 and sent hundreds fleeing from a place many considered immune from violence.
“I do know that no one with compassion and love and of a clear head could walk in and just hurt so many people randomly,” said Ashley Graham, whose daughter was a close friend of one of the children killed. “There’s no way.”
Police officers said the gunman walked into the commons area where many students gather before classes and started shooting. Witnesses said he fired a single shot, paused, and then emptied the handgun of ammunition before he tried to escape and was arrested.
On Wednesday, authorities said the suspect faces preliminary charges of murder and assault while police investigate what might have prompted the mass shooting.
Throughout a community where practically everyone knows each other – Benton, the nearest town, has about 4,300 residents – people reacted at first by saying, “We can’t believe this is happening to us,” church youth director Patrick Adamson said Wednesday.
Now, as disbelief gives way to grief, Adamson said people are turning to bigger questions: “What are we going to do about it? How are we going to come together?”
Many are leaning on their faith, he said.
In nearby counties, students gathered in prayer circles before classes began Wednesday. President Donald Trump sent his “thoughts and prayers” in a tweet more than 24 hours after the shootings and shared his condolences with Gov. Matt Bevin in a phone call Wednesday.
Dominico Caporali, whose 16-year-old daughter watched her classmate repeatedly pull the trigger, struggled to make sense of what happened in such a comfortable, familiar place.
“This community doesn’t have violence that most communities do. All these kids know each other; they hang out with each other,” he said.
His daughter, Alexandria, agreed people tend to be nice to each other.
“It’s not a bad place,” she said. “Not a lot of bullying goes on.”
But no community is immune to society’s ills – not even Marshall County, where over a four-year stretch ending with the 2016-17 school year, the high school had 317 reports of bullying and other harassment, one first-degree assault and nine other assaults or acts of violence, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.
The school also had seven arrests involving 22 charges, 285 incidents involving drugs and 30 reports involving alcohol.
Kentucky’s database shows that among all 1,253 public schools grades K-12 in the state, there were an average 58 acts of harassment per school during those four years.
The grief is overwhelming for the families of Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, the two 15-year-olds killed. Secret Holt told KFVS her daughter was a “perfect sweet soul” and said the shooting was “just unbearable” for her family.
Ashley Graham’s daughter, 15-year-old Johanna Davis, was close friends with Bailey Holt, though Johanna attends a different school.
“I just can’t imagine at all what Secret’s going through right now,” Graham said of Bailey’s mother. “It’s a small community. Everyone knows everyone and … you just try to think of what you can do to help the mom, but then you don’t want to bother her.”
At Vanderbilt University Children’s Hospital, one patient was released Wednesday, and three male patients in the adult hospital were upgraded to stable condition, spokeswoman Kristin Smart said. A fourth male remained in critical but stable condition.
Schools were closed countywide Wednesday, but elementary and middle schools will reopen Thursday, Superintendent Trent Lovett said.
“Across the nation, we’ve been listening to some advice, and they think we need to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible,” he explained.
But Lovett said he still can’t say when the high school will reopen. Its main entrance remained blocked by yellow police tape Wednesday as investigators continue to explore possible motives.
Without an explanation of why he did it, a prosecutor said Wednesday, they can’t yet add charges of attempted murder to the two murder charges he faces, even though more than a dozen other students suffered bullet wounds.
Assistant Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall said the preliminary charges for wounding the other classmates will be first-degree assault, which carries the same penalty.
“Attempted murder is an offense which takes into account motive and specific intent,” but why he did it is still being investigated, Darnall said. Assault simply requires a “serious physical injury by means of a dangerous instrument.”
It’s the same question many people are asking: Why did it happen?
Said Ashley Graham: “Something had to be wrong.”
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