Twenty years ago this coming Friday, the unimaginable happened in an East Carter High School classroom.
Approximately 2:45 p.m. on Jan. 18, 1993, a bright, but troubled student by the name of Gary Scott Pennington, who was 17 at the time and who had transferred to ECHS after his family moved to Carter County from Elliott County the previous summer, walked into his seventh-period English class with a .38-caliber revolver that belonged to his father and that he smuggled into the school in his backpack.
He fired one shot from the weapon at his teacher, Deanna McDavid. He missed her.
“Scott, what are you doing?” McDavid screamed. Pennington swore at her and pulled the trigger again.
The second shot struck McDavid in the forehead, killing her.
McDavid, whose reputation was that of a demanding, but fair teacher who always pushed her students to do their best, would have turned 49 the following day.
McDavid had reportedly tried to reach out to Pennington prior to her death because she was disturbed by the recurring themes of death and violence in his classwork. Pennington had also told classmates he was upset with McDavid because she had given him a “C” as his midterm English grade, which Pennington feared would be a blot on his academic record. He had pleaded with McDavid to change the grade, but she refused.
One of Pennington’s writings that had concerned McDavid was a book report on a Stephen King novel, “Rage,” in which the protagonist, Charlie Decker, shoots his teacher and then tries to convince his classmates he is a hero for doing so.
Following the initial shots, Marvin Hicks, ECHS’ head custodian, and with social studies teacher Jack Calhoun, went to McDavid’s classroom to investigate. Hicks reportedly asked Pennington if his gun was loaded; Pennington responded by shooting Hicks once in the abdomen and then aimed the gun at Calhoun without pulling the trigger. Hicks died at the scene of his injuries.
Hicks, who lived in Olive Hill, was 51 at the time of his death. He had been the head custodian at ECHS for nine years and, prior to that, worked as coal miner. He was beloved by students and was remembered as a salt-of-the-earth type who was never too busy to lend a hand to anyone who needed it.
Some witnesses reported Hicks pushed a female student out of the line of fire before being shot himself.
The other students in the classroom sat in stunned disbelief as the events unfolded. Some said later they at first believed the shootings were part of an elaborate skit McDavid had arranged for the school’s drama club, which she founded and oversaw.
One student wrote a farewell letter to her family, fearing she would be killed. Others recalled Pennington counting his remaining rounds, telling them he had one for each of them, but then saying if he killed anyone else, it would be himself.
Pennington held his classmates hostage for about 15 minutes before allowing them to leave the classroom in pairs. He then surrendered to Grayson Police Officers Keith Hill and Larry Green, who were in the hallway outside the classroom.
Hill, who would later serve as Grayson’s police chief, drew his duty weapon on Pennington and asked: “Did you do this?” Pennington replied yes, he had. “The gun’s on the desk,” he told the officers.
Pennington was arraigned in juvenile court, his face covered by a raincoat as he was led in and out of the courtroom, but was subsequently certified to stand trial as an adult. He was charged with two counts of murder and 22 counts of kidnapping.
More than two years after the shootings, in February 1995, Pennington was convicted of the charges. Because of the notoriety of the case, his trial had to be moved twice, first to Morgan County and then to Johnson County, to seat an impartial jury.
Pennington, who had reportedly told people his intention was to kill more than one person so he would be eligible for the death penalty, was instead sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years. He is serving his sentence at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, according to the Kentucky Online Offender Lookup System.
With credit for time served prior to his conviction, Pennington will be eligible to meet with the parole board in five years, when he is 42. Given the severity of his crimes and the fact offenders rarely make parole the first time they seek it in Kentucky, the odds of him being released at that time would seem slim.
The shootings at ECHS were among the first of what became a number of incidents of violence at mostly smalltown high schools in America.
Nearly five years later, in December 1997, the same type of violence would occur at another Kentucky high school when 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on a group of students who had gathered for morning prayer at Heath High School in West Paducah, killing three and injuring five.
The 20th anniversary of the ECHS shootings comes on the heels of another episode of deadly school violence, one that has led to renewed focus on how to prevent such incidents, the killings of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
The ECHS shootings shattered the illusion that small towns such as Grayson were insulated from violent crime. They also led to changes. East Carter was among the first schools in Kentucky to install metal detectors at the entrance. Backpacks like the one Pennington brought his father’s gun to school in were banned. And new guidelines were implemented to help counselors and teachers spot troubled students.
Today, there are few reminders of the tragedy than unfolded in Room 108, McDavid’s classroom, nearly 20 years ago. Most of the faculty members who were there at the time have retired. The students who were there at the time are closing in on 40.
ECHS has struggled recently with academic issues, having been labeled a persistently low-achieving school by the state. Efforts to change that have been ongoing, and Principal Larry Kiser said progress has been made.
Kiser said the school had no plans to host any kind of official observance to mark the 20th anniversary of the shootings.
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2654.