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Echoes of 'The Incident' : Stockton Still Haunted by Schoolyard Bloodbath

March 04, 1989|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

STOCKTON — It's called "The Incident," "The Thing" or "The Event."

"I have to force myself to say 'shooting.' I rarely say 'the Cleveland school killings' because it makes my skin crawl," said Roger Speed, in charge of counseling the survivors.

Six weeks after Patrick Edward Purdy fired more than 100 rounds from an AK-47 into the Cleveland Elementary School playground, killing five children and wounding 29 others and a teacher, some people here say the incident is better not discussed.

But try as it might, Stockton cannot forget.

Just last week, Janet Taylor heard a siren and began crying. Bryan, her first-grader, talks about Jan. 17 often.

Five of his classmates were wounded. One was killed. He saw it all. Bryan started sleeping in his own room only after the family moved two weeks ago and changed schools.

Eric, Taylor's third-grader, still has a bullet fragment embedded near his hip. He doesn't talk much about that morning. But he does spend a lot of time copying the words of songs from the "Bad" tape that entertainer Michael Jackson gave him when he visited the children last month. The visit, Taylor said, "meant a lot."

"Adults seem to think that after two weeks, it should be over," Taylor said, but it's not. "The memories are there, even though the bullet holes are patched."

The checks, the letters and the offers of help from across the nation have stopped. Jackson came and went. For the people of Stockton, however, the healing has barely begun.

The county Mental Health Department has identified 280 of Cleveland's 900 students who will need therapy. Already strapped by a shrunken mental health budget, therapists are finding their task made even more difficult because of language and cultural differences with the children, most of whom are from Southeast Asia. Teachers, so heroic during the attack and since, are reaching their limit and need counseling themselves.

"It's harder now. People think it's six weeks after and it should be back to normal, and it's not. . . ," Cleveland teacher Lori Mackey said. "It's frustrating. You tell them exactly what they want to hear: 'Oh yeah, it's better.' "

In the aftermath of the mass murder, people in Stockton struggle to find some good that came of it all. The tragedy did force the city of 190,000 to reach out to its estimated 30,000 Southeast Asians.

The Stockton Record ran a five-part series on the Southeast Asians. Twelve days after the massacre, more than 3,000 people attended a memorial at the Civic Auditorium.

Civic organizations, business leaders and residents donated everything from cash to a trailer set up at the Cleveland campus for counseling sessions. The year's Cinco de Mayo parade will be dedicated to the school.

"In the past, I don't think they paid attention to us. They maybe didn't know us--didn't need to know us," said Ky Hoang of the Vietnamese Voluntary Foundation.

Other people take some solace in the knowledge that their City Council, long mired in internal rivalries and challenges from the outside, voted 9 to 0 to ban assault weapons Feb. 6.

"It happened here. We had to do something," said Sidney Turoff, 67, a retired University of the Pacific business finance professor, who first suggested the ban in a letter to the council.

"These were such little kids," he said. "They were babies, really. They were in a schoolyard, which is the most protective environment we can find for our children."

The impact of the shooting, followed by the Stockton City Council's action, extended far beyond Cleveland Elementary School. Cities throughout California have adopted or proposed bans patterned after Stockton's ordinance.

A survey after the attack by the California Teachers Assn. showed campus security to be the top concern of its 180,000 members, said Edmund Foglia, president of the association. The teachers' organization was also stirred to step up its lobbying on behalf of a gun-control measure in Sacramento.

"Cleveland could be any school in any neighborhood in this state or this country. . . . When you start killing kids, who are innocent, who have nothing to do with drugs or anything else, the line is drawn," Foglia said.

Ban Challenged

However, even in Stockton, the fight is on over the weapons ban. One group was formed to recall Mayor Barbara Fass because she led the effort to ban assault rifles. Commercial real estate broker Dale Thurston formed a second group, Citizens for a Better Stockton, and is gathering signatures to place a local initiative on the ballot to repeal the assault weapon ban.

"When we tamper with the Second Amendment, we tamper with the insurance policy for this country," Thurston declared.

"I did what I thought was right," Fass said, back in her office after a day in Sacramento to lobby on behalf of a statewide ban on the guns. "Doing the right thing was far more important than maintaining my office. If that's the price I have to pay, so be it."

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