BENTON, Ky. — A tight-knit rural community reflected Wednesday on the hometown horror of a school shooting that killed two teenagers, injured 18 and sent hundreds of others fleeing for their lives from a place many considered immune from violence.
Police have not publicly identified the 15-year-old accused of opening fire Tuesday at Marshall County High School. Officers said he walked into the “commons” area where many students gather before classes begin and immediately began shooting. Witnesses said he fired a single shot, paused, and then emptied the handgun of ammunition before he tried to escape and was arrested. On Wednesday, authorities said he faces preliminary charges of murder and assault while police investigate what might have prompted the attack.
Throughout a community where practically everyone knows each other — Benton, the nearest town, has about 4,300 people — people were initially shocked, saying “We can’t believe this is happening to us,” Patrick Adamson, a church youth director, said Wednesday.
Dominico Caporali, whose 16-year-old daughter watched her classmate repeatedly pull the trigger, expressed a similar conviction.
“This community doesn’t have violence that most communities do. All these kids know each other, they hang out with each other,” he told The Associated Press.
His daughter Alexandria seconded that, saying “most people are nice to each other here … It’s not a bad place. Not a lot of bullying goes on.”
But no community is immune to society’s ills — not even Marshall County, where over a four-year stretch ending with the 2016-17 school year, the high school had 317 reports of bullying and other harassment, one first-degree assault, and nine other assaults or acts of violence, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.
The school also had 7 arrests involving 22 charges, 285 incidents involving drugs and 30 reports involving alcohol.
Kentucky’s database shows that among all 1,253 public schools grades K-12 in the state, there were 72,599 acts of harassment during the same period — an average of 58 per school.
Now, as disbelief gives way to grief, Adamson said people are already asking “What are we going to do about it? How are we going to come together?”
Many are leaning on their faith to cope, he said. His Baptist church was gathering Wednesday to share prayers and help teens talk about the shootings. In nearby counties, students gathered in prayer circles before classes began Wednesday. President Donald Trump sent his “thoughts and prayers” in a tweet more than 24 hours after the shootings, and shared his condolences with Gov. Matt Bevin on Wednesday in a phone call.
“Yesterday was one of those days where as a governor you lose three years of your life in a day. I can’t even imagine the price it has cost these families,” Bevin said.
The grief is overwhelming for the families of Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, the two 15-year-olds who were killed. Secret Holt told KFVS that her daughter was a “perfect sweet soul,” and the “horrific act of violence” is “just unbearable” for her family.
Schools were closed county-wide on Wednesday, but elementary and middle schools will reopen Thursday, Superintendent Trent Lovett said.
“Across the nation we’ve been listening to some advice and they think we need to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible,” he explained.
But Lovett said he still can’t say when the high school will reopen. Its main entrance remained blocked by yellow police tape as investigators continue to explore possible motives.
Without an explanation of why he did it, a prosecutor said Wednesday, they can’t yet add charges of attempted murder to the two murder charges he faces, even though more than a dozen other students suffered bullet wounds.
Assistant Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall said the preliminary charges for wounding the other classmates will be first-degree assault, which carries the same penalty.
“The reason for that is based on information we have right now. Attempted murder is an offense which takes into account motive and specific intent,” but why he did it is still being investigated. Assault, on the other hand, simply requires a “serious physical injury by means of a dangerous instrument,” Darnall said.
Schreiner reported from Frankfort, Kentucky. Associated Press contributors include Adam Beam in Frankfort; Claire Galofaro and Rebecca Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky; and Michael Warren in Atlanta.