Almost eight years ago today was the worst day at the office I’ve ever had. Nov. 8, 2005 was a day that would change my life, and that of everyone in my hometown, LaFollette, forever.
It was the day a kid brought a gun to Campbell County High School.
I was sitting in the newsroom when the calls started coming in.
Working as a reporter at the time, I, along with my co-workers, all snapped to attention when one of the front office ladies came back and told us that callers were saying there’d been a shooting at the high school.
A veteran reporter and photographer raced off to the scene, while I stayed back to field calls and pursue the story by phone.
While the school system’s central office was in full-on shutdown mode, details started leaking out.
Unlike today, when social media would have delivered the early news, it was actually the local radio station that first began relaying information.
It didn’t take long to find out the school’s principal and two vice principals were wounded.
Shock ran through me.
As a graduate of the school just a decade before, I knew all three men.
I’d interviewed the principal, Gary Seale, before, though he’d never actually been an administrator at a school I’d attended.
Jim Pierce, one of the assistant principals, had been my physical education teacher. He’d pushed me, a relatively chubby kid, to push through the physical requirements of the class, and I’d cut nearly three minutes off my mile-run time in a semester. His daughter had been just a grade or two behind me, and I was friends with his future son-in-law.
Finally, Ken Bruce, the other assistant, attended the same church as my family.
My wife and I, as church newcomers, had attended a cookout at his house, hosted by Ken, his wife and two college-aged boys. They’d been gracious entertainers, going out of their way to welcome all of the newcomers to the church family.
“This can’t be happening,” I clearly remember thinking.
The first reports we heard indicated the shooter had killed at least one of the men. I also remember many our staff, none of whom went to church together, offering up silent prayers as the news came by radio and phone.
It wasn’t long before we learned that Ken had been the one to die. Jim and Gary were both air-lifted to Knoxville, and while it had been touch-and-go, both were expected to survive.
It was heart-breaking. I couldn’t shake from my memory the joyful faces of Ken’s wife, Jo, and their sons, Patrick and Chris. Ken’s playful tough-love with the boys had been something to see. He was the gruff, yet loving dad that sitcoms are made of. And he was gone.
The reality of that moment, coupled with the fact that I had a job to do, was almost too much. I can remember trying to reach my wife by phone to let her know what had happened, and to not wait up for me. She was a grad student at the time, back in school to earn a master’s degree in education — of all things — and was still working at the Department of Children’s Services.
Eventually, I headed to the home of a high school teacher I knew, who was gathered there with co-workers and some students and former students who’d found their way over after school had been dismissed. Everyone was in shock and needed each other, forget the rules of after-school mingling.
Even though I was a member of the media, the group welcomed me in. I’d been a regular at the school, covering sporting events and school functions, and I was an alumni.
If they had to talk to someone in the news media, it might as well be me. We talked freely. I didn’t have a microphone or a notebook. For once, all the interviews were just going to be stored in my head.
It was a cathartic experience for everyone. Just talking about our feelings was a good thing.
The newspapers that followed over the next month or so were also healing for the community, desperate to know the details of how and why a 14-year-old student would shoot up the principal’s office at the local high school.
Though the school system was often reluctant to talk about the matter, I think even they realized it was part of the healing process to get the details into the open.
Nearly eight years later, I thought most of the healing had been done.
But this past summer the shooter, who’d pleaded guilty in 2007, was granted a new trial.
Apparently he’d not been given proper counsel by his attorney, and he’d been rushed to accept a plea without his parents’ advice.
While I’m all for justice, the families of the victims have been through enough. A scar eight years in the making has been ripped off, exposing the wound again.
God bless the community and all of the families involved.
Jason Davis is a Campbell County native, a CCHS graduate and former editor for the LaFollette Press. He’s currently the editor for the Mountain Press in Sevierville. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the LaFollette Press.