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Archdiocese of Louisville (Ky.) articleMay 14, 2009
To view this article and photos in their original format, visit http://www.archlou.org/therecord/article188008c2182148.htm
School shooting survivor warns kids about bullying
Catholic middle school students hear about 1997 Paducah high school shooting
By Marnie McAllister
BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Missy Jenkins Smith was 15 years old when a classmate, whom she considered a friend at one time, walked into her high school and began to shoot students who had gathered to pray.
She watched as one of her classmates was shot in the head, and she felt her own body turn numb after being shot in the left shoulder, just above her heart. The bullet hit her lung and spinal cord.
Smith survived the 1997 shooting at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., that left three girls dead and five students injured. Now, paralyzed from the chest down, Smith works with troubled kids, hoping to help young people who might otherwise resort to violence. And she speaks regularly to student groups about preventing such violence at their own schools.
Last week, she brought her message to Bethlehem High School in Bardstown, where seventh- and eighth-graders from area Catholic schools gathered to hear her speak.
“I think God knew the path that bullet should take and gave me a second chance at life after that,” she told the students who were seated on bleachers in the gym. “I was so blessed, because God gave me a purpose for my life at 15,” she said, noting that telling her story has been therapeutic for her.
Smith’s audience included students from St. James School in Elizabethtown, Ky., St. Gregory School in Samuels, Ky., St. Ann School in Howardstown, Ky., St. Dominic School in Springfield, Ky., and St. Joseph School in Bardstown.
St. Joseph’s eighth-graders have read and studied Smith’s recently published book, I Choose to be Happy, in their language arts class. In the book, she writes about the shooting as well as her reliance on God and her decision to forgive the shooter.
Smith, who is now married and has a 20-month-old son, focused her talk at Bethlehem on the damaging effects of bullying and the power of forgiveness.
The shooter, Michael Carneal, who is serving a prison sentence of 25 years to life, was a class clown, said Smith.
“He was always trying to make people laugh,” she noted. “And I kind of looked up to him for that. I also looked up to him because, if someone made fun of him, he always acted like it didn’t bother him.”
Students often teased Carneal, and at one point before the shooting the school newspaper claimed that he was gay, said Smith.
“There were a lot of things like that he had to go through,” Smith said. “And he bottled all that up inside. I can’t imagine going through that every day.”
“It is so important to treat each other with kindness,” she told the students. “You don’t know what kind of an effect your words can have. I don’t know why, when we’re in middle school and high school, we strive for popularity. It isn’t important. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Smith also urged the students to speak up when someone is being bullied.
“If you see someone being treated badly, get that person out of that situation,” she said. “If you are a bystander, you are just as bad as that bully.”
While Carneal was a victim of bullying, Smith said, bullying is not to blame for his actions.
“I think that Michael (Carneal) made a horrible choice thinking it would make things better,” she said. “He went in (to prison) at 14, and he’s now 26 years old. And he could be there the rest of his life.
“He shouldn’t have brought a gun to school,” she said. “He should have asked for help.”
Plenty of people missed the warning signs, Smith said. Carneal actually had brought a gun to school on another day prior to the shooting, “and his classmates laughed at him, saying, ‘That’s just a .22. It can’t hurt anybody.’
“If somebody had told on him that morning, maybe I’d still be walking, and maybe those girls would still be alive,” said Smith, who noted that she is striving to walk again one day.
Smith also spoke to the students at Bethlehem about forgiveness. She told them that she forgave Carneal while she was still in the intensive care unit after the shooting.
“I forgave him because being angry and mad isn’t going to help anything,” she said. “I still believe he ... has to serve his sentence. But that day, after I forgave him, it helped me move on with my life.”
Smith also said that she visited Carneal in prison. He said he was “sorry for what he’d done to me,” Smith said. And he asked her to tell the kids she counsels to “confide in someone when they need help” and “to stop bullies.”
St. Joseph teacher Ally Sparks said she hoped her students learned from Smith’s story that “by allowing God in your life, miraculous things can happen.
“Even if you’re handed something that’s not ideal, you can turn it into something positive,” said Sparks.