Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett was walking to his office, not far from Marshall County High School, when a 15-year-old student started shooting in the high school commons area shortly before 8 a.m. on Jan. 23, 2018.
Lovett used a gravel access road to reach the school within minutes of the incident. He told an audience Friday at Owensboro Community & Technical College that students were fleeing in all directions as he arrived and rushed into the building. In the commons area, Lovett found staff members trying to provide whatever aid they could to three wounded students.
Lovett gave a public presentation Friday at OCTC to discuss how the school district dealt with shooting and the aftermath, and what steps were taken to make students and staff feel secure when returning to school. Lovett’s presentation was part of a discussion on crisis management.
Lovett recalled looking at an injured student and thinking, “He’s not going to make it,” he told the audience in OCTC’s Blandford Hall. The student, Preston Cope, died later while being flown to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville.
“You always think it’s something that’s going to happen somewhere else,” Lovett said.
Gabriel Ross Parker shot and killed Preston Cope and Bailey Holt, who were both 15, and wounded 18 others before he fled, dropped the gun and went to a weight room where other students were taking refuge. Parker was located by police officers a short time later and surrendered without incident.
Parker’s trial is scheduled to begin in June. When asked if there were any warning signs about Parker’s behavior, Lovett said Parker was in the band and was not considered a problem by teachers.
“There wasn’t a teacher that believed it,” Lovett said.
Parker had done his homework the evening before and later told investigators he had never been bullied at school.
“He was not on anyone’s radar at all,” Lovett said.
The school’s commons area is a regular gathering place, and Lovett estimated there were from 600 to 800 students there when Parker entered the building with a handgun he had snuck out of his parents’ bedroom the night before.
When Parker opened fire, Lovett’s daughter was standing a couple of people away from one of the students hit. What saved many students, Lovett said, was that Parker wasn’t familiar with the handgun and fumbled trying to change the clip.
“Our shooter didn’t know what he was doing,” Lovett said.
When Parker began struggling to change clips, the students ran and Parker left the area, Lovett said.
With Parker, who was not then identified as the shooter, at large, Lovett grabbed a baseball bat from a bag in the commons and went searching down a hallway. He found several students hiding in rooms and got them to an exit where a teacher was herding students into the tech center. Back in the commons, the area was littered with dropped backpacks and ringing and buzzing cellphones. Lovett, who was a friend of Cope’s family, answered Cope’s phone and talked to his father.
“I said, ‘It’s not good,’ ” and told Cope’s father help was coming. Cope’s parents made it to campus after the shooting and got to see their son briefly, and for the last time, before he was airlifted away.
Holt had been trying to avoid stepping on people who were on the ground when she was shot twice in the back. Holt died at the scene.
When responders began arriving, they secured the commons area and began a search. That was a part of the response Lovett said he disapproved of because students who took shelter and didn’t see the incident were then escorted out through the blood-splattered commons area.
“That weighs heavy on me because they were exposed to things they shouldn’t have been,” Lovett said.
There was considerable chaos. Students had run down streets to nearby businesses. Some of the wounded took shelter in a dentist’s office, and one student fled on foot for a mile before stopping at a grocery store. One wounded student was driven to a hospital by another student and a teacher.
Once responders took over, they weren’t communicating regularly with Lovett, he said. That created problems when a parent stopped Lovett and asked where his wounded son was and Lovett didn’t know.
Lovett said responders have to keep information flowing to school officials because the schools are the ones talking to worried parents.
To keep parents away from the high school, busses were dispatched to take the students and teachers to North Marshall Middle School, which was set up at the reunification center. Most students were reunited with their parents in two hours or so. But law enforcement had not communicated with Holt’s parents and they went to the middle school looking for her, Lovett said.
It was arranged for Holt’s parents to come to a nearby fire station. “When they came through the door … I didn’t have to say a word, because they immediately knew,” Lovett said. “They hit the floor, and we consoled them.”
All county schools were closed the next day. The high school was “a crime scene” and couldn’t be re-entered until it was released by law enforcement, Lovett said.
Officials at Heath High School in Paducah and at Columbine High School, which had both experienced shootings, were consulted. Heath officials said they went back to school the day after the shooting, “and that was too soon,” while Columbine officials said they were closed for a week “and that was too long,” Lovett said.
All other Marshall County schools reopened on Jan. 25 and the high school was released from being a crime scene the night of the 24th. An outside crew was brought in to clean in the commons area.
The school reopened on the 26th, but the day began with a commemoration in the auditorium. Parents were allowed to stay as long as they liked, and students could go home when they were ready. Classes officially restarted the following Monday.
Lovett said the school made a number of changes to make students feel secure in the days after the shooting, such as searching backpacks and using metal detector wands. Security was added and counselors were brought in, Lovett said. In fact, the school had to turn people away who wanted to help counsel students, he said.
The district has gone from one school resource officer for the entire district at the time of the shooting to seven this school year. “That, and the mental health counselors, are the best things we’ve added,” Lovett said, and called it “money well-spent.”
Other changes were also permanent. The high school and middle school have metal detectors, backpacks are prohibited at the middle and high schools, and only clear bags are permitted for elementary students.
“We received help from all areas,” Lovett said. “... The people who reached out to us and the help they provided, I certainly, certainly hope I never have to repay them in the same circumstances.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse