Constable: 1988 school shooting in Winnetka was different
"This shouldn't happen. Not here. Not anywhere," I scribbled in a notebook as I stood outside the Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka on May 20, 1988, struggling to write a column about the unthinkable -- a shooting at a school.
It was a gorgeous Friday in the tony suburb, and the tragedy seemed so out of place among the majestic trees and magnificent homes. Shock was the overwhelming reaction. A school shooting was such an aberration for us then. How could this happen?
School shootings are no longer rare, but we ask the same question today in the wake of last week's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 and wounded another 14. All the thoughts and prayers have been registered, memorial services are wrapping up and angry folks take to TV talk shows, social media, the streets and a spot outside the White House to demand that our politicians do something about gun violence.
As horrific as that day in Winnetka was in 1988, the shooter was a 30-year-old woman armed with three handguns, only two of which she fired in the school. She walked freely into the school (the classroom had a door opening to the outside) and even sat in the classroom, as parents and visiting teachers often did in those days, before committing her deadly assault.
Society responded by locking school doors, ridding classrooms of doors that opened to the outside, installing cameras, giving teachers walkie-talkies on the playground, requiring visitors to check in and show identification, employing security officers and conducting drills to teach students and staff members how to survive another shooting.
School shooters responded with an arms race. The Parkland shooter used an AR-15, dubbed "America's Rifle" by the National Rifle Association, which is apt considering that gun was the weapon of choice for killing children in schools in Florida and Connecticut, office workers in California, concertgoers in Las Vegas, nightclub patrons in Orlando and churchgoers in Texas. The AR-15 is a semiautomatic version of the fully automatic M-16 military rifle that became the standard during the Vietnam War. Often equipped with a 30-shot magazine, the gun can be outfitted with magazines that allow as many as 150 shots before reloading. The Vegas shooter added bump stocks that turned his weapon into a gun capable of firing nine rounds a second.
The Winnetka shooter critically wounded a 6-year-old boy in the bathroom and then opened fire in a classroom, killing one 8-year-old boy and wounding four other children, before fleeing to a nearby home where she wounded a 20-year-old man before taking her own life.
I'll never forget the name or the photo we printed of the lone fatality -- a smiling, adorable, smart, athletic little boy named Nick Corwin. The village named a park after him.
Our headline noted that "innocence" had died, too. School shootings were rare enough that we had no protocol. People didn't know how to act. Reporters watched police officers crawling on their hands and knees, looking for evidence among the scattered crayons on the floor of the classroom where most of the shooting happened. A few parents retreated into their vehicles, where they could access "car phones" that allowed them to provide updates to loved ones. Surviving children, baby sitters and parents mingled outside, sharing thoughts with mobs of reporters.
"This lady came and shot right through his shirt," a first-grader wearing a dainty dress said about a wounded classmate. "He had blood on his back and on his tummy."
Parents who knew their kids weren't shot lined up at the front door, waiting for their children to be released.
"One of the boys died," a youngster told his father as they walked home from the school. "I know," the father said as he gently ran his hand through his son's hair and waited for what his boy might say next.
"I've got all my paintings in here," the boy gushed as he thrust a brown paper bag of watercolors toward his dad, who suddenly rediscovered the ability to smile. "I think he's going to be all right," he said.
Perhaps that little boy did grow up to be all right. But society is not all right. School shootings aren't the shocking aberration they were 30 years ago, but we still repeat that mantra: "This shouldn't happen. Not here. Not anywhere." We've focused on making schools more secure, but the biggest change in school shootings in the last three decades belongs to the killers. Their weapons of choice are easy to get and much deadlier.