WEST PADUCAH – Friday marked 20 years since a teenager opened fire at Heath High School, killing three students and injuring five more.
For survivor Missy Jenkins Smith – now a Calloway County resident – those 20 years might as well have been 20 seconds.
“It still feels like yesterday,” Smith said of the shooting that left her in a wheelchair. “But what I really want to make this day about, more than anything, is remembering the girls (that were killed), remember what happened to them and just to remember that something like this can happen anywhere.”
Smith was one of the guests at a memorial service held Friday morning at the high school, now Heath Middle School. She said it was a time to remember and celebrate the lives of those that were lost.
Nicole Hadley, Jessica James and Kayce Steger were in a prayer circle in the early morning of Dec. 1, 1997, when teenage gunman Michael Carneal opened fire, killing all three. The other survivors included Smith, Kelly Hard Aslip, Craig Keene, Hollan Holm and Shelley Schaberg.
“There are people still dealing with this, even though it was 20 years ago,” Smith said. “There are still families that don’t have their daughters, their grandchildren.”
Smith added that she hoped the memorial service would help prevent future shootings, or at the very least, make people more aware of the threat of one.
“It’s just scary that these things are still continuing to happen,” Smith said. “I hope we can make this day a day of change.”
She said the community at large was still reeling from the shooting, and thanked citizens of Paducah for help she received during her recovery all those years ago, including a donated van and wheelchair-accessible addition that was built at her house.
“It reminded me that I wasn’t alone in what I was having to do,” Smith said. “It continues to show how much Paducah cared about us.”
She said that over the years, she built up connections with fellow survivors and the families of those that lost their loved ones. Those bonds can’t be broken.
“We all went through something that day,” Smith said. “I want them to know that they aren’t alone, too. It’s awesome to still have that support, even after 20 years.”
Following the service, which included words from McCracken County Schools Superintendent Brian Harper, Nicole Hadley’s sister Christina Ellegood and 1993 Heath High School graduate Marthy Keith, a ribbon cutting was held for a new memorial across the street.
“I like that it’s where it can be seen,” Smith said. “We have kids here at this school now that weren’t even born (then), which makes me feel old. I feel like that memorial across the street reminds us that the suffering is still continuing to happen today.”
Echoing what she said about the service, Smith said she hoped it would serve as a constant reminder of what could happen at any day, any time.
“We have to remember and never forget, because there are three girls that paid the ultimate price for what happened that day,” Smith said. “It’s been such a negative thing, but we don’t want those lives to be forgotten because of that negativity, but to see that their lives were there to make change in a positive way and help prevent it from happening in other places.”
Smith herself could be a monument to what happened 20 years ago. She’s become a public advocate against bullying and works as a counselor with the Calloway Alternative Instructional Facility. She’s also authored two books about the lessons she’s learned and those she hopes to spread to others.
“I was a visual for what happened,” Smith said. “I don’t mind being a reminder. I feel blessed to do that for others.”
She said that even now, she continues to see bullying and other warning signs among kids.
“I see it all the time – (students) too worried about being a snitch and telling because they’re afraid that somebody’s going to retaliate against them,” Smith said. “And I try to remind them that it’s better to do something about it than wish you had done something. Start a young age, because that’s a huge key.”