Amy Lamoreaux enjoyed baby—sitting for Kayla Rolland. Her “6-year-old charge lived in a nice home, had lots of toys and was always cheerful. “She was really nice, she was a good little girl, she never ran her mouth,” says Lamoreaux, 15. “She used to play baby dolls like any other girl.” Once a picture of sweet innocence, Kayla was transformed on Feb. 29 into the youngest victim yet of the gun violence plaguing America’s schools when she was shot and killed by a classmate.
Police and school officials moved quickly to piece together the tragedy, which brings to 13 the number of student shootings in U.S. schools over the past three years. At about 10 a.m., Kayla’s first-grade class at Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, Mich., was lining up outside their homeroom to pass to another class. Five students still lingered in the room when a 6-year-old boy pulled a .32-cal. handgun from his pants pocket, pointed the weapon at one student, then whirled toward Kayla and fired a single shot into her chest. As a teacher desperately administered CPR to Kayla, the boy fled to a bathroom and dropped the gun in a trash can. He was immediately detained, while Kayla was rushed to nearby Hurley Medical Center, where she died at 10:29 a.m.
For Buell’s 500 students and the 26,500 residents of Mount Morris Township, a working-class community eight miles north of Flint, Mich., the news stung like one of winter’s bitter gusts off Lake Huron. “You don’t bring a gun to school by accident,” said Darnisha Bristol, 24, giving voice to the angry feelings of so many parents gathered outside the sprawling one-story school. Bristol, who has two children at Buell, said she received a call saying there had been an accident at the school. “I thought a water main broke or there was a gas leak,” she said. When she learned a student had been shot, she raced to the school to find her two sons. “I just wanted to take my babies home and keep them safe,” she explained.
Hardest hit was Kayla’s family—her brother Johnny Allen, 10, her sister Elizabeth Allen, 11, her stepfather, Michael McQueen, 38, who is self-employed, and her mother, Veronica, 30, a factory worker. “She was a good kid,” said her uncle Terry McQueen. “She loved life.” Adds an aunt: “She didn’t have a problem with nobody.” Nobody, that is, except perhaps a boy with a gun. “There may have been some sort of scuffle or quarrel on the playground the day before the shooting between this little boy and this little girl,” said Genesee County prosecutor Arthur Busch. He noted, however, that among children so young, “one minute they’re fighting, the next minute they’re hugging.”
The boy, whose name was not released as of the evening of the shooting, was turned over to the state’s Family Independence Agency, which then placed him with relatives. Busch said he intends to find and bring charges against the person who enabled the boy to get his hands on the gun, which was reported stolen from a local home last December. He added that it was unlikely the boy will be prosecuted, because Michigan law takes the view that a child as young as 6 “is not criminally responsible and can’t form an intent to kill.” Busch described the boy’s home situation as “sort of a mixed-up mess.” An official close to the investigation said that the boy’s 29-year-old father is in the county jail for a parole violation following a ’97 burglary conviction.
While prosecutors attend to the legal issues involved in the killing, Mount Morris Township will turn to the matter of trying to ensure that such a tragedy will never occur there again. “How do we protect our schoolchildren, our teachers?” asks Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell. “How do we know the warning signs?” School was canceled the day after the shooting, and grief counselors were being called in. “Parents have to monitor their children better,” says John Perkins, whose granddaughter Melvia, 6, is a student at Buell. Each day before she leaves for school, Melvia’s pockets are checked for toys that might prove disruptive in class, and Perkins also keeps the family home free of weapons. “I’ll take my chances rather than have this sort of tragedy happen,” he says. “Get rid of the guns.”
Amy Mindell in Mount Morris Township and Barbara Sandler and Mary Green in Chicago