“I hope my death makes more senses then my life,” the 12-year-old had already jotted in a spiral-bound notebook of his plan to commit suicide-by-cop. He would have shot himself if he hadn’t feared offending God, he later said in an interview he and his father gave to The Washington Post. Forcing a police officer to kill him didn’t seem as bad.
“That way it wasn’t a sin,” he explained.
So, at 8:44 a.m. on April 26, he walked down a busy hallway at Plymouth Middle School outside of Minneapolis, loaded the magazine, chambered a round. He pointed his dad’s gun toward the ceiling, the start of a school shooting that, like more than a dozen others in the past four months, has gone almost entirely overlooked during the pandemic.
Pop, pop, pop.
He saw the terror in the eyes of the kids around him. He heard their screams. He watched them run. With the hallway empty, he said, he removed the magazine and cleared the chamber. Then the boy sat on the floor, where he waited for someone to kill him.
The attack was part of a disturbing surge of campus gun violence that made this spring unlike any other in modern U.S. history. Despite thousands of elementary, middle and high schools remaining partially, or entirely, closed because of the pandemic, there have been 14 school shootings since March — the highest total over that period during any year since at least 1999, according to a Post analysis of nearly 300 incidents.
While such shootings remain rare, this latest string has pushed the country past a bleak and uniquely American milestone: More than a quarter of a million children have been exposed to gun violence during school hours since the massacre 22 years ago at Columbine High near Denver.
Because none of this year’s episodes were mass shootings, 2021’s casualties — three dead, eight wounded — do not yet compare to 2018, the worst year on record, when 33 people died. But it has left teachers, parents and students dreading what’s to come this fall when nearly all children are expected to go back to their classrooms.
This spring, many kids had returned to school just days, or even hours, before they were forced to run from gunshots, a devastating reminder that, even as they escape one epidemic, another rages on.
For the sixth-grader in Minnesota, a rush of regret enveloped him the moment he fired that last round into the ceiling.
The boy had unraveled during the pandemic, as had so many other children across the country. His family had moved to a new home, leaving behind the friends he’d made in their old neighborhood. He’d finished elementary school on a computer screen and started middle school the same way.
When in-person classes finally resumed in March, he didn’t know many kids and struggled to meet new ones. At home, he started sleeping more and saying less. As May approached, he didn’t want to feel sad anymore, so he made the plan that had led him to the hallway just outside a middle school bathroom.
Now, still sitting on the floor, he braced for who would come for him first, fearing men with semiautomatic rifles. Instead, the assistant principal rushed over.
“What happened? What happened?” he recalled the administrator asking, but the boy couldn’t get any words out.
He was taken away in handcuffs and, not long after, sent to a mental health treatment facility. Prosecutors charged him with two felonies, including second-degree assault, said his father, Troy Gorham. He hasn’t been sentenced, but he and his family know he will face consequences.
“He did it,” Gorham acknowledged. “He’s guilty.”
Earlier this month, Gorham asked his son what he would tell other kids feeling the way he did before the shooting.
“Would you say it’s not worth bringing a gun to school?” Gorham asked.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Would you like to apologize to your school for what you’ve done?”
“You scared a lot of kids,” Gorham told him. “They might have PTSD now.”
The boy lingered on that thought. People finally knowing how depressed he was had started making him feel better.
“But,” he said, “I created more depression for those kids.”
‘They shot my brother!’
America’s school shooting crisis re-emerged in 2021 just before 10 a.m. on March 1, when one 15-year-old boy walked up to another in a hallway, raised a gun, then shot his schoolmate in the head.
Daylon “DayDay” Burnett, a tall ninth-grader with a linebacker’s shoulders, collapsed to the floor of his junior high school in Pine Bluff, Ark. The white tile beneath him turned red.
Daylon’s younger brother, Desmond, had watched it all. He called their mother as the shooter fled.
“Momma, you need to get to the school!” the eighth-grader shouted. “I’m standing in DayDay’s blood!”
“What did you say?” LaKeisha Lee asked.
“Momma, you need to get here now. They shot my brother.”
The Watson Chapel Junior High shooting, and the 13 others that followed, came at a time of soaring gun violence nationwide. In 2020, bullets killed more than 43,000 Americans. And though that’s the highest total in decades, 2021 is on track to be worse.
This year’s on-campus incidents have happened in 12 different states, and prove, once again, that no place is immune: five in rural towns, six in cities, three in suburbs; the communities were poor, middle-class and affluent; some schools were mostly White, others mostly Black.
Dating back to Columbine, at least 151 children, educators, staff and family members — and 37 shooters — have been killed in assaults during school hours on 278 campuses. Another 323 people have been hurt. But as this year illustrates as well as any, the number of dead and wounded does not come close to capturing the true toll of the crisis.
In Tennessee, on April 12, police confronted 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. in a bathroom at Knoxville’s Austin-East Magnet High. During a brief struggle, investigators say, a gun hidden in the teen’s pocket went off, prompting one of the officers to blast a round into his heart. Just then, body-camera footage shows, one of the boy’s friends emerged from a stall, and an officer ordered him to get down on the floor.
“He’s bleeding! Help him! Please!” the teenager screamed, weeping as he watched his schoolmate die.
In South Carolina, on May 5, 15-year-old Sterlyn Bullock and a friend were sitting in a car when a Ware Shoals High School staff member approached because they were late for class. Sterlyn got out, backed away, drew a handgun from his waistband and shot himself in front of at least three other students, sending the school into lockdown. He died at a hospital.
In Idaho, on May 6, a sixth-grader pulled a handgun from her backpack and opened fire at Rigby Middle School, wounding two students and a custodian. She stopped only after Krista Gneiting, a math teacher, quietly approached and took the weapon away. As hundreds of students remained hidden in darkened classrooms, Gneiting hugged the girl until police came.
Daylon’s shooting in Pine Bluff drew only fleeting attention beyond Arkansas, but at his school, the impact was immediate and immense.
“Code black. Code black,” Principal Uyolanda Wilson announced over the intercom seconds after hearing gunfire. Screaming students dashed out of the building, passing by a nurse performing CPR on their friend.
Police soon arrived, and officers with semiautomatic rifles searched the campus for the gunman, unaware that he was already gone. Suddenly, one spotted a boy in the hallway wearing a hoodie similar to the suspect’s.
“Burgundy jacket! Burgundy jacket! Get down!” the officer yelled, pointing the end of his barrel at the teen before a school security officer searched his clothes and let him go. He hurried away, trembling.
Daylon’s mom pulled up just in time to see paramedics wheeling out her son. On a helicopter ride to the hospital, Lee held his hand, whispering that she loved him.
Daylon, the oldest of Lee’s seven kids, was a star athlete who hoped to play professional football when he grew up, but also joined the school’s Junior ROTC program, determined to escape Pine Bluff.
He’d gotten into some trouble as a teen and spent time in juvenile detention, mostly because he hung out with people he shouldn’t have, his mother explained, but both she and the principal said he’d made real progress this year. Two weeks before the attack, Wilson called Lee to tell her Daylon had worked hard to get his grades up since switching from virtual classes to in-person learning.
He was known, in part, for his empathy, once volunteering to escort a girl to a school event because no other boy would take her. To his siblings, he was as much a parent as a brother, rustling the kids out of bed and helping them get dressed, making pancakes and eggs before they caught the bus. On Wednesdays, family karaoke night, he was almost always the first one up, insisting that his brothers and sisters join him.
The news that Lee most feared came not long after she and Daylon reached the hospital. Her son would not survive, doctors told her. The bullet had done too much damage to his brain. Two days later, on March 3, he was taken off life support. Lee climbed into the hospital bed, holding her son until his heart stopped beating.
“Y’all my boy got his wings at 5:35 pm,” she posted to Facebook that evening.
Lee’s anguish was only made worse by the identity of the accused shooter, Thomas Quarles, another student at Watson Chapel. He had been to their home. She’d fed him snacks, heard him trade jokes with Daylon. They were friends. Lee doesn’t know why he allegedly shot her son, and police haven’t announced where the gun came from, but she heard they’d had an argument.
He’d gotten into some trouble but had never shown signs that he was capable of such violence, the principal said. He was a normal kid, just like Daylon.
When Watson Chapel reopened, Wilson said, her students were like “zombies,” subdued and afraid. The teachers struggled just as much. One started having panic attacks when she noticed kids in the hallway crowding around her classroom door. Another, who’d seen Daylon on the floor, had to start taking anti-anxiety medication.
At least nine staff members left by the end of the school year because they couldn’t shake the memories. Among them was the nurse who performed CPR.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, it was just one kid killed.’ But there are hundreds of lives affected here,” said Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Jerry Guess, who worries about the unseen effects on his students. “This is something that will live with them for the rest of their lives. They may be a young adult or an old person before it surfaces as what it did to their life and how it changed them.”
For Lee’s six surviving kids, the change came right away.
When she told her 11-year-old son that Daylon was gone, he punched the wall so hard that his wrist broke.
Her 5-year-old son didn’t understand. Daylon used to read “Curious George” books to him before bedtime.
“Why did God take my brother away?” Lee recalled him asking one day.
“God needed him more than us,” she replied.
“I don’t know.”
None of them has struggled more than Desmond, the brother who watched it all, who came home with bloodstains on his white Air Force Ones. He needs therapy, his mom knows, and Lee plans to get him a counselor soon. She and her husband moved the kids away from Pine Bluff, hoping to start over, but no one in the family, especially Desmond, has escaped the trauma.
One morning, Lee heard him get up at 3 a.m. When she checked on him, he told her that his mind wouldn’t stop replaying the shooting at their school, the place where he and his brother were supposed to be safe.
‘See if the gun’s there’
“Every time I see a story on the news about a teen suicide or a school shooting,” Eve Ryser told her fellow school board members, “I immediately ask myself, ‘Whose gun did the student use? How did they gain access to this lethal weapon?’”
It was May 27, and Ryser had just urged California’s Napa Valley Unified School District to take an unusual step: update its website with information on parents’ legal obligation to safely store their firearms in a place where kids can’t access them and send annual letters to students’ homes explaining the same thing.
More than 1 million new guns had been registered in California the year before, explained Ryser, a Moms Demand Action volunteer and former teacher. And, as of 2015, at least 4.6 million children lived in homes across the country with a loaded, unlocked firearm, a figure that has almost certainly grown during the pandemic.
“We also know that this risk is not hypothetical in our community,” she said of a place known around the globe for its fine wine and lush vineyards.
In 1992, a student opened fire at a middle school, wounding two classmates. Since then, Ryser said, other children had used their parents’ guns to kill themselves.
And then there was the experience of her own daughter, Maya Prouty. In 2017, Maya, then 10, was walking on her campus when someone opened fire just off the property. She made it back inside the elementary school seconds before the doors were locked. Two years later, Napa City police thwarted a boy’s plan to shoot up her middle school.
Ryser told the board that she once asked her daughter, now a ninth-grader, if the girl felt safe at school.
“Feeling safe at school isn’t really a thing anymore, Mom,” Maya replied.
The resolution passed, 6 to 1.
Storing firearms away from children is the single most effective way of preventing campus gun violence, many researchers and gun-safety advocates argue. In fact, the Post analysis shows that at least 164 shootings since 1999 were committed by children. If they did not have access to guns, none of those attacks could have happened, sparing more than 165,000 students from enduring violence at the places they go to learn and play.
In Minnesota, Troy Gorham didn’t know his 12-year-old son had taken the handgun from his parents’ bedroom until the shooting was over. In the aftermath, Gorham’s older son, who also attended Plymouth Middle, had heard his brother might be responsible.
“Go look in the room and see if the gun’s there,” Gorham recalled his eighth-grader texting. It wasn’t.
Though 29 states and the District have passed some sort of child access prevention law, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, researchers say those statutes are often not enforced, are too limited or carry weak penalties.
In 2018, The Post reviewed 105 school shootings in which the weapon’s source was identified. Of those, the guns were taken from a child’s home or those of relatives or friends 84 times, but in just four instances were the adult owners of the guns criminally punished because they failed to lock them up.
Though Minnesota’s law is among the least restrictive in the country, Gorham said he would understand if prosecutors, who didn’t reply to requests for comment, decided to charge him with a crime for his son’s decision.
“I’m just as much as fault as he is,” said Gorham, who installs carpet for a living.
He’d taught his kids how to fire a gun, how to handle one safely, and he’d insisted that they never touch his without permission. As far as Gorham knew, they never did. He thought that was enough.
“We don’t know what’s going through these kids’ heads,” Gorham said, explaining that he now has a simple message for friends who leave their guns in drawers or, worse, out in the open: “Lock ‘em up.”
His son, who is under house arrest, suspects he’ll eventually be sent back to a juvenile detention center. He can only go outside for 30 minutes a day, he said, and typically spends that time playing basketball. His parents got him a bulldog mix, Delilah, to take care of, and he’s taken up chess to keep his mind occupied.
He wants to join the Navy someday. He’s never seen the ocean but likes to think that working on a boat, beyond sight of land, would make him feel free. He’s not sure if that will ever be possible, though.
“I screwed up my life,” he said.
The boy blames himself, not his father, but when asked what would have happened if Gorham had locked up the gun, he didn’t hesitate.
“Nothing,” he said. “None of this would have happened.”
Graphic by Kate Rabinowitz. Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.