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Victim Turns Her Shooting Into Lesson for Others

Kortney Tatum tells her story to Compton teenagers at an event set up by her mother.

May 15, 2004|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Kortney Tatum has always seen herself as something of an activist.

In high school, she made headlines when she sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education office of civil rights complaining that Centennial High School in Compton was not adequately preparing her for college.

Tatum, 21, speaks passionately -- at times eloquently -- about her goals to become a psychologist and about her time working with mentally disabled children while attending Cal State Northridge.

But last fall, a drive-by shooting "flipped my whole world upside down," Tatum said.

While riding in a car with a friend Nov. 6, minutes after leaving her mother's side near a beauty supply shop, Tatum was struck in the right eye by a bullet.

With blood filling her hands, Tatum managed to call 911 as her friend drove her to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

Doctors told her it was a miracle she survived. The bullet exited her head behind her left ear, but left her blind in that eye.

She spent months holed up in her mother's house in Compton. Sheets covered the windows to prevent light from harming her sensitive eyesight. Tatum dropped out of school and left her job to recover.

She spent most of her days sleeping and fighting depression and intense pain.

So when Tatum -- wearing dark glasses -- appeared before about 200 fidgety teenagers from two Compton middle schools Friday to talk publicly for the first time about her recovery, it was no surprise that she breathed deeply before starting and tapped her toes nervously.

"The day I got shot started as a regular day. I got up. I got dressed. I went to school," Tatum said

In an instant, the room went silent.

"I got shot in the head."

A few girls gasped.

"I just remember nothing but blood in my hands," she said.

Boys crossed their arms and bowed their heads, listening.

"I never thought that something like this would happen to me," Tatum went on, sounding more confident. "I had my own car, my own place. I took care of myself, I was very independent and now I am dependent on everyone around me."

Tatum told her story in a conference hall at Compton Community College, as part of its student government Gang and Victim Awareness Day. A student dance performance and talks from former gang members were also included. Tatum's mother, Tara Bonner, a Compton College student, organized the event.

"I can't just sit around and not do nothing," said Bonner, a U.S. Postal Service worker who is studying to become a teacher. "It's happening every day. It's wild out there."

Bonner, who was attending a class at the college when the news came that her daughter had been shot, said she is planning picnics, a march and more events to warn young people against joining or affiliating with a gang.

Even if they can keep only one youngster away from gangs, the mother-and-daughter team said, they would feel as if they've done their job.

"It's like a circle," Bonner said, introducing her daughter to the audience. "Every time someone gets shot it gets smaller and smaller

As she implored the youths to "get an education, make something of yourself," Tatum removed her sunglasses, revealing a shut right eyelid, slightly indented.

The students were respectful and quiet. Some adults wiped away tears.

And when Tatum told them that she would complete her education, despite not being able to return until she finds a way to pay off financial aid loans at Cal State Northridge, the students cheered and applauded. "This is not going to stop me," Tatum said.

Afterward, the students from Walton Middle School and the Vanguard Learning Center were ready to get lunch. Tatum stood in a hallway watching the rowdiness. She said she knew there were future gang members and victims out there.

"I just hope what I said can stop that."

It might have helped.

"I thought it was good what she had to say," said eighth-grader Stephanie Elam, 14. "It's hard to grow up in this environment."

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