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The Stockton School Yard Massacre : Somber Students and Teachers Wrestle With the Horror

January 19, 1989|DAN MORAIN and STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writers

STOCKTON — In single file, hushed, somber and each clasping a solitary pink tulip, a teacher and her 12 young students emerged from the front entrance of Cleveland Elementary School shortly after noon Wednesday.

They moved slowly toward a concrete block-lettered school sign obscured by stalks of mums, roses and gladioli. One by one, the ashen-faced children laid their flowers at the foot of the sign. Standing in a semicircle, they clasped hands, bowed their heads for a moment and then, without a word, retreated back inside the school.

It was a brief moment in a day of remembrance and healing at Cleveland Elementary School, an improvised silent ceremony in honor of five classmates slain the day before in a random spray of gunfire. All day Wednesday, inside the classrooms of the beige stucco buildingand outside on a crowded parking lot, students, parents, teachers, and counselors wrestled with the horror they had witnessed and the memories that would not be easily erased.

"It's just a plain scary situation," acknowledged Dr. Mary Gonzales Mend, superintendent of the Stockton Unified School District. "We all need the opportunity to talk with others and get these feelings out."

School custodians had worked overtime until midnight Tuesday, scrubbing away the blood and patching dozens of bullet holes that riddled the school walls.

Outside one classroom, Room 17, more than 29 holes were patched.

Earlier Tuesday, Bryan Taylor, 6, cowered in a classroom and heard the staccato bursts of the assault rifle fired by Patrick Edward Purdy. He had seen classmates gunned down in the playground. His brother, Eric, 8, was wounded by the gunfire.

In the hours after the shooting, the boys' parents, Richard and Janet Taylor, took turns visiting Eric at Lodi Memorial Hospital and tending to Bryan at home. At first, Bryan asked his father, a California Highway Patrol officer, if he could wear a bulletproof vest to school.

Then on Wednesday morning, Janet Taylor told a reporter, Bryan said he wanted to stay home. "I don't want to come back," he said. "I don't want to ever come back."

With coaxing, Bryan finally agreed to go. But he was one of only 227 of the school's 963 students who showed up for class Wednesday. Many, like Bryan, clung to their parents.

Brando Villapuda, 6, cried when he realized that he was about to be separated from his father, Bernardo. "Daddy, I don't want to go," the child whimpered. "I don't want to go. . . . "

Counselors and teachers spent the first hour of class trying to gently persuade reluctant students to come inside.

"There were some children who cried. There were some staff who cried," said Principal Pat Buscher. She said they would all "need time to work it through and deal with their grief, and go on and live wonderful, meaningful lives."

Sodram Chan, a 6-year-old Cambodian pupil with a tear-stained face, held tightly to her mother, Taamao, until a counselor knelt by her side and said: "Sodram, your teacher is looking for you. She really wants to see you."

When Juanita Leitch, who has taught at Cleveland for 12 years, showed up at the start of the day, she was uncertain what she would tell her pupils. "I will just wait," she said. "I will say, 'Good morning.' I want to see their reaction."

Class started with seven pupils. At one point, Leitch asked them to draw what most tormented them. One child, who had seen his classmates scramble in terror the day before, drew stick figures of a boy leaning and another lying on the ground.

The child wrote a sentence to go with the drawing: "This is my friend," he wrote. "He was ready to fall. The other was on the ground."

Connie Sass, 31, a Stockton resident whose young cousin, David Bryant, 6, was wounded Tuesday, came to the school in clown costume. She was among dozens of well-wishers who showed up to offer assistance, prayers, flowers and even poems for the children.

School officials allowed Sass to visit the children during their lunch hour in the cafeteria. She walked from table to table, giving pep talks and singing songs requested by the pupils.

In front of the school, visitors draped flowers and left stuffed animals on the "Cleveland School" sign. Marvilene Hagopian, a Sacramento resident, dropped off her own children at school in that city Wednesday morning and then drove to Stockton to leave her only offering, a one-page poem.

Like the others, Hagopian left her memento at the school sign, taped to the concrete letters.

"Help is out there," she had written .

"Please, if you need help, get it.

If you can give help, give it.

"Never let this happen again."

Dan Morain reported from Stockton and Stephen Braun from Los Angeles.

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