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The Kentucky Standard (Bardstown) articleMay 9, 2009
To view the article in the original newspaper format, visit www.lcni5.com/cgi-bin/c2.cgi?091+article+News+20090509131720091091007
Victim of school shooting speaks to area students
By Stephanie Hornback
Missy Jenkins Smith was 15 years old when she was shot at Heath High School in Paducah, which paralyzed her from the chest down. Now 27, she has learned many lessons from her experience, and she visited Bethlehem High School Friday to share them with middle-schoolers from area parochial schools.
Smith was asked to visit after Ali Sparks’ eighth-grade language arts classes at St. Joseph School read Smith’s book, “I Choose to be Happy.” She began Friday by relating what happened Dec. 1, 1997.
Shortly after participating in a prayer circle in her high school’s lobby, as she did every morning before school, Smith, a sophomore, heard something that sounded like firecrackers. Having never heard gunfire, she didn’t realize the sounds were from a .22-caliber pistol being shot by freshman Michael Carneal. Even when she saw a classmate get shot in the head, it didn’t register with her what was happening.
“I thought it was a joke,” she said. “I thought this wasn’t something that could happen in a school.”
A few seconds later, she was hit.
“My entire body just went numb, and it was like I floated down to the floor,” Smith said.
Her twin sister, who narrowly escaped injury during the shooting when a bullet went through her hair, crawled to Smith and crouched over her until the shots stopped. Smith noticed she couldn’t feel her stomach, but hadn’t realized her legs had lost all feeling as well. Her sister left her and went to the gym to call their parents on a pay phone. Smith’s algebra teacher then knelt beside her and started to pray.
Smith blacked out, despite her teacher telling her to keep her eyes open. When she regained consciousness, she saw a girl beside her being held by Smith’s chemistry teacher. She heard her algebra teacher say the girl wasn’t going to make it.
The ambulance came, and after a battery of tests in the emergency room, Smith heard for the first time that she was paralyzed.
“I remember trying to get upset, but I really think God was telling me, ‘Hey, you’re gonna be OK,’” she said.
The bullet, which was found between Smith’s back and shirt, had entered at her left shoulder and exited from the right side of her back. It hit her spinal cord but missed every major artery. Had it not, Smith would likely have bled to death before the ambulance arrived.
She was one of eight students hit by Carneal’s shots. Three died.
“The person that did this was only 14 years old and somebody I actually considered a friend at one time,” Smith said.
Carneal was a class clown, which drew a lot of attention to him, some of it unwelcome. He was regularly ridiculed and bullied, Smith said, but it never seemed to bother him. His teachers and classmates realized too late that it actually disturbed him intensely.
“It is so important to treat people with kindness,” Smith told the students.
“If you see somebody being treated bad, what you need to do is get that person away from that situation.”
A boy who regularly tormented Carneal apologized to Smith after the shooting. He told her he felt like he had played a part in causing Carneal to snap. But Smith said being being bullied doesn’t excuse Carneal, who is serving a sentence of 25 years to life at the state penitentiary in LaGrange.
“He shouldn’t have brought a gun to school; he should’ve asked for help,” Smith said.
There were warning signs of what Carneal had planned. He brought the gun to school two weeks before the shooting and pulled it on two students in the band room. They laughed at him and didn’t mention the incident to anyone. Carneal also told some students that something “big” was going to happen. They paid no attention to the boy who everyone knew to be a class clown.
Smith said it didn’t surprise her that no one mentioned Carneal’s bizarre behavior. Heath High School had such a trusting environment that no one even used locks on their lockers, she said. And she wouldn’t have taken Carneal seriously either, even if he had told her not to go to prayer circle that day.
“I’m hoping that you can learn from the mistakes my school made,” she told the students assembled at Bethlehem.
She also hopes they can learn the power of forgiveness. Smith said she forgave Carneal when she was still in the intensive-care unit following the shooting. She felt like God was calling her to do it, and when she did, she felt the burden of carrying that anger leave her body.
Smith visited Carneal in prison 10 years after the shooting.
“It was just odd looking at him and thinking, ‘This is the person that attempted to murder me, but also the person I considered a friend at one time,’” she said.
Carneal answered all of her questions and told her he was sorry. He wrote her letters after she left; it was like he was trying to convince her he wasn’t a bad person, Smith said. She never replied to the letters.
Closure can never really be achieved, Smith said, but she has moved on from the shooting, one of the first to get national attention. Smith learned to be independent again, and she graduated from Murray State University with a degree in social work. She lives in Murray with her husband and their 20-month-old son and works at a day treatment center for students who have been removed from school — some for threatening violence.
In response to a student’s question Friday, Smith said she doesn’t think what happened to her was unfair. She said she feels blessed that God gave her a purpose so early in her life.
Smith used a brace to stand during her prom, high school graduation and wedding, and has maintained since the shooting that she will walk again. That optimism has faded a bit through the years, but she isn’t bitter.
“I definitely know that I’ll walk in heaven,” she said.