The Tragedy in Room 108

An angry teen killed his teacher and forever changed a Kentucky town.

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In Carter County, Ky., guns are as much a part of life as high school basketball and tobacco fields. But until last January 18, school violence was the kind of thing folks only read about happening in Chicago, New York, or maybe Cincinnati. At East Carter High, discipline problems were mostly the run-of-the-mill variety—boys fighting with boys, girls fighting with girls. Never in their worst dreams did anyone think a killer would come to one of their classrooms.

Making schools better. Located in the Appalachian foothills in the eastern corner of the state, Carter County is conservative territory: Alcohol is not sold and liberals are not very welcome. Grayson, the county seat (population 3,500), is a typical modern town. The stores along Main Street have seen better days, but the largest Kmart in Kentucky opened last year out by Interstate 64. The county usually ranks among the state's top five in unemployment, but it also boasts many working- and middle-class people.

The schools have been among the bright spots in recent years. In 1990, Kentucky began an ambitious education reform effort, which has included spending nearly $550 million on new schools, higher teacher pay and new curricula. East Carter High has about 600 students in grades 10 through 12. Four in 10 graduates go on to college, nearly all to Kentucky schools.

To Ross Julson, a North Dakota native who came to Carter County as school superintendent in 1990, there was nothing extraordinary about the place or its people: "The only thing out of the ordinary was in the mind of Scott Pennington. He took a completely ordinary situation and turned it into a nightmare."

towns like Grayson, schools are often the center of community life and teachers are among the best-known and most respected citizens. In the case of Deanna McDavid, the fame and respect were far beyond the ordinary. Deanna, as she was known to all, was born and raised in Carter County, and except for the years she spent at nearby Morehead State University and working in Ohio, she never left.

Her life revolved around her husband Danny, a boilermaker, their children, Brent, Lisa and Angie—and her work. For 17 years, she taught English to the bright as well as the apathetic, during the day, at night, in the summer. As a senior-class sponsor, she helped organize the prom and graduation and she led field trips near and far. If a kid needed a date for the dance or money for a tux, she took care of it. And at every home football and basketball game, she was at the gate, taking tickets and selling raffle chances. Deanna's energy level was legendary. Ruth Ann Miller, a colleague and neighbor in the Corral Park subdivision, recalls how every night when she turned out her lights, Deanna's were still on.

She stood only 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed less than 100 pounds, but by all accounts she was fearless. Counselor Joann McDowell recalls the East Carter group walking back to their Manhattan hotel at 2 a.m. during a class trip to New York two years ago. "We should have been nervous," she says, "but we weren't because Deanna was leading the way."

"Miss McDavid," as she was known to students, was also one tough teacher. Many students called her "Little Hitler" behind her back. She was a strict disciplinarian who had trouble accepting anything less than best efforts. But she held no grudges. "She got angry with me plenty," says Angie Shimek. "But when it was over, it was over."

And while even her friends agree she was pushy, no one questioned her motives. "It was always the kids," says Deanna Phillips. "She would never let anyone shortchange her kids." At Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium two years ago, a group from East Carter arrived for a Reds baseball game only to learn the tickets they had been sent were for the previous day. A team official said nothing could be done. "I would have gotten on the bus and gone home," says Phillips. "Not Deanna." When she demanded to speak to the man's supervisor, her students chuckled. "We all knew this guy was in for something he could never imagine," recalls Jackson Julson, the superintendent's son. Sure enough, she returned with new tickets and the Reds employee in tow to apologize.