It was never lost on Missy Jenkins Smith that she was lucky to be alive, even at a young age.
She remembers the moment she felt pain in her legs for the first time after a bullet hit her chest and she fell to the ground, about 25 years ago, at Heath High School in Paduka, Kentucky.
“I looked at my teacher, and I said, ‘Am I going to die? Missy, now 40, missed. His algebra teacher was kneeling beside him and praying.
Missy was one of eight students who were shot on December 1, 1997, when a 14-year-old boy entered the school, and opened fire in the lobby where the students had gathered for prayer circles. The shooting killed three people and stunned a nation unfamiliar with such violence, as images of school hallways turned into scenes of crime revealed the horrors of the day.
Missy was paralyzed from the chest down, and at 15 she had to adjust to life in a wheelchair.
The shooter, now a 39-year-old man, is up for parole, and many members of the community are on edge, grappling with the prospect of being freed despite the gloomy and long-lasting scars the tragedy left on Paduka.
While the shooter pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison in 1998, Kentucky law requires minors to be considered for parole after 25 years. His parole hearing is to be held on Monday.
CNN spoke to some of the victims of the shooting at the Paduka School and their family members ahead of the hearing. He reflected on what has been troubling him since that day, and what he wants others to know that his community is still grappling with healing.
Across the street in a tree-filled lot that used to be Heath High is a circular brick structure. Inside, a stone with the image of an angel lists the names of the students who died: Nicole Hadley, Jessica James and Kays Steiger. Behind it, small stones on the wall bear the names of those injured in the firing.
The memorial is where Christina Hadley Allegood goes after a hard day, or when the grief of losing her 14-year-old sister, Nicole, takes its toll.
“It shows that our community has not forgotten about my sister and the other girls who lost their lives and were injured,” Christina told CNN.
The memorial, which is now located near Heath Middle School, is also where victims – now adults – can take their children to explain what happened that day, she said.
“A lot of students had to grow up overnight. You didn’t feel safe going to school. Then you were asking, where do I really feel safe?” Christina said. “It seems to me that whenever we take away something as simple as this, it will change a person a lot.”
When 15-year-old Christina first heard about the gun on campus, she assumed someone brought a paintball gun to the school. He later found his sister on the ground with a gunshot wound to the head.
Shock took over his body.
“I remember thinking I should cry but I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel any emotion,” she said.
Her sister was shot in the lobby when the students’ prayer circle said “Amen” right in front of Missy, who later recalled that it must have been a joke because it sounded like fireworks.
But then, standing in front of Nicole, waiting for her to rise, Missy is also shot.
“All of a sudden, there was ringing in my ears and I started floating on the ground,” she said. “Even hitting the ground didn’t hurt.”
Going in and out of consciousness, Missy sees her chemistry teacher holding another girl, as another teacher repeated, “She’s not going to make it.”
“I had no clue I was watching Jessica die,” Missy said.
Now, Missy is preparing to address the parole board on Monday as they consider whether to release shooter Michael Corniel. He hopes his wheelchair will remind him of the scars left after the shooting.
“The fact that he was the one who made the decision for everyone’s future but the only one to get a chance on parole is a little disappointing because everyone else has been sentenced to life without parole. I’ll never walk again. And The girls who were killed will never come back,” she said.
Corniel’s attorney, Alana Meyer, told CNN in a statement that Corniel has committed to taking drugs during his incarceration and, if released, will return to a mental health facility near his parents’ home. I am planning to continue my treatment through medical and drug management. Another town a few hours away from Paduka.
According to his lawyer, Corniel was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while he was incarcerated at the Juvenile Justice Department.
“Over the past 25 years, Michael has demonstrated his ability to transform, rehabilitate and mature. Michael has always felt deep remorse and took responsibility for the shooting. He continues to improve himself,” Meyer said in a statement. And is dedicated to becoming a positive force in any way possible.
For Christina, the parole hearing could represent a life-changing moment for many within the community who may no longer feel safe when the shooter is released. While some may feel that the shooter has served enough time, he said, the vast majority who he believed felt should remain in captivity.
“I believe he claimed the lives of three girls who did nothing wrong, and didn’t get a second chance at life,” she said. “Then why should she?”
Kelly Alsip was also shot that day, and she still has a bullet wound on her left shoulder as she prepares to address the parole board.
Kelly remembers her daughter crying when she saw a letter in the mail about an upcoming parole hearing, immediately fearing for her mother.
“I get stunned just thinking about it because it’s not just affecting me,” Kelly said.
For those who were there on the day of the shooting, they still vividly remember what happened: worried parents running to the school to find their children, students on the phone to call them. They were lining up, and what were they doing before the shooting started. ,
Kelly was holding hands with her best friend Kays Steiger in a prayer circle shortly before the shots played out. Kayas was killed.
“I was the last person to talk to him,” Kelly said.
Missy was shot by someone she knew, a guy who was in the band with her. Someone she looked up to as the “class clown” she never imagined would shoot at school.
But now she knows there were signs.
“I would like to think that if he had asked me for help, or had said something to me, I would have helped him,” she said.
Corniel had previously brought a gun to the school, and also warned that “something big” was about to happen at the prayer hall that morning, Missy said she later learned.
She had even seen him bully and bully others before the shooting – at a time when people didn’t talk about bullying.
Missy is now an author and public speaker who has devoted much of her life to addressing at-risk youth and talking about bullying prevention – a role she has played in helping to prevent another act of violence. was taken for
“I was hoping that if there was a kid like the shooter at my school, if that person needed someone to talk to, an adult they could trust, that I had a whole lot of reason to go in, Missy said.
Missy believes that Corniel must still “deal with the consequences of his actions”, but she isn’t holding any rage any longer.
“My second chance that was given to me, I didn’t want to live in that anger,” she said. “I knew the anger would never let me go again. It was not going to bring back the girls who passed away, and it was not going to change what happened that morning. ,
Christina and her brother, Andrew Hadley, also faced a long journey as they grapple with the grief of losing their sister at such a young age. Andrew was 12 years old and in the homeroom when Nicole was murdered, and remembers how “everyone was just staring at me” when he was later asked to go to the office.
They saw blood on the school floor and someone being carried in a stretcher with officers on the spot. Then he saw his mother and sister crying.
The trauma stayed with him from that day on, turning into anxiety and depression as he struggled to understand the reality that his sister was gone, he said. What helped them heal was the birth of their daughter, whose middle name is Nicole.
“I love having a new mission in life and purpose in life,” he said.
For survivors of a shooting, it can also be difficult to hear about the recent school shootings. So far 40 firings have taken place in K-12 schools this year.
“I know the pain they are feeling,” Christina said. “And many times there is nothing I can do to overcome it or help them through it.”
She had to learn that it was okay for her to limit her viewing of news about other shootings. But she takes solace in the bond she now has with others who have survived the shooting of Paduka.
“We know we will stop whatever we are doing to support that person because we understand them in a way that no one else does.”
And when another school shooting happened about five years ago in Kentucky just 30 miles from Heath High, Christina said she jumped into action.
A 15-year-old boy opened fire at Marshall County High School in 2018, killing two students and injuring 16.
Christina approached those affected by the shooting to offer advice and help the community heal, going through her difficult healing process after losing her sister in a school shooting.
He had struggled to bury the pain and years of replaying what had happened in his head. Talking and writing through her feelings has helped her ever since, she learned.
“I wanted to share with them what I was doing to help them,” she said. “I tried to give them some advice on things I did, maybe I wish I hadn’t or just advice on things I’ve learned along the way.”