A few red ribbons, tattered by the elements, still hang on trees along the streets of Chardon, Ohio. To some people in town, the ribbons are a necessary reminder of a shooting spree at Chardon High School a year ago that left three students dead and three others injured.
On Tuesday, just a day shy of the one-year mark of the tragedy, T.J. Lane pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated murder and other charges in the Chardon shooting. Prosecutors say Lane fired 10 shots from a .22-caliber pistol at students milling in the school cafeteria the morning of Feb. 27, 2012.
After a year in which even deadlier mass shootings like those in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., grabbed headlines, it could be easy to overlook the tragedy that shook Chardon, a middle-class community of 5,000 residents about 30 miles east of Cleveland.
If there are lessons to be learned from the students at the high school and the broader community, it’s that the emotional damage leaves lasting scars and heavy hearts do not heal quickly. Four adults have committed suicide in Chardon, and there have been more than a dozen attempted suicides among students since the shootings, a school official said. Counseling sessions and lessons on detecting warning signs that friends, classmates and colleagues might be suffering have become part of classroom curriculum.
Chardon High School principal Andy Fetchik tried to put an upbeat face on a grim year during a press conference last week.
“I can assure you, we’re getting better,” Fetchik said. “There’s a lot to be done. We have a strong and compassionate community surrounding us, and we’re getting better every day.”
What began as a typical winter day in Chardon turned into a deadly rampage when shots rang out around 8 a.m. Lane, then a 17-year-old junior, aimed his gun at randomly targeted students, authorities said.
Students Vincent "Danny" Parmertor, Demetrius C. Hewlin and Russell D. King Jr. were killed in the attack. Students Nick Walczak, Joy Rickers and Nate Mueller were wounded.
Police captured Lane in a neighborhood near the high school. Under questioning, he reportedly admitted to shooting the students. Before the case went to adult court last year, a juvenile court judge ruled that Lane was mentally competent despite evidence he suffers from hallucinations, psychosis and fantasies. Because he was a minor when the attack occurred, the death penalty was not a consideration.
With his grandparents and family members of the victims in court on Tuesday, Lane changed his plea from not guilty by reason of insanity to guilty. Dressed in a green open-collared shirt with close-cropped hair, Lane answered "yes" or "yes, your honor" to questions from the judge about the plea agreement. After a background review is completed, Lane will return to court on March 19, when Geauga County Judge David is scheduled to sentence him.
Lane's attorney, Ian Friedman, said the teen had undergone psychiatric evaluation, but last week declined to discuss his client's emotional state and how he might reflect on the one-year mark.
“It’s a very delicate matter,” Friedman said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate to comment on anything beyond where the case is procedurally.”
Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz did not return messages seeking comment on the case.
While a public trial could have shed light on the shooter’s motives, some community members say such details could have done greater emotional harm.
“There are very good lawyers in this case representing Lane and the prosecutor,” said Carmen Naso, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “And, ultimately, the judge is going to decide what happens to this kid.”
During a media briefing last week, reporters were asked to refrain from referring to Feb. 27 as the “anniversary” of the tragedy, which could imply a sort of celebration. Reporters were asked instead to refer to the day as a “one-year mark.”
Chardon High School students and faculty planned to observe the day by embarking on service projects. Some were making care blankets, like those distributed by volunteers after the tragedy. Others were crafting leashes for comfort dogs, like those brought to the school in the days after the incident.
Students also planned to take a memorial walk from the high school to the village square and host a candlelight vigil and concert.
“Danny, Demetrius and Russell were our classmates,” said Chardon High School senior Will Porter. “For a lot of us, they were our friends. They’ll never be forgotten, and we hope to honor them through this day.”
Senior Jessie Mysyk said the tragedy has inspired a strong sense of unity at the school.
“There's never a time when a student would feel alone,” she said. “Within the school, we are a community. We're all friends. We are a family. ... We are together."
Senior Jill Allenby said the killings had pushed students to move beyond typical teenage grievances.
“We don’t have the normal kind of drama or high school cliques that everyone sees,” Allenby said. “When you walk through the halls, you see everyone and everyone says hello.”
Must love kids, not guns
After the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December, the National Rifle Association suggested placing armed guards at schools and possibly training teachers to shoot as the best way to avert such a tragedy in the future.
While the idea of arming teachers has some support in Chardon, school superintendent Joseph Bergant II says it won't happen.
Bergant said it was fine for teachers to learn to use weapons in their private time. But permitting a teacher to carry a concealed gun, which is legal in Ohio, will not happen in Chardon, he said.
“That defeats our purpose,” Bergant said. “Our purpose is to educate children in a safe, caring environment. … We are not going to put bars on the school buildings. We are not going to put an iron dome over the top.”
Fetchik, the high school principal, agreed. The school now has an armed “resource officer”—a police officer whose salary is paid with funds from the local government and donations to the community after the shooting.
“I don’t want guns in school,” Fetchik said. “I want a trained resource officer. … That gentleman is prepared to deal with using that weapon, (and) not just pointing and pulling the trigger."
About the red ribbons
Gestures like hanging a ribbon on a tree still serve as a haunting reminder to many. Recently, the city has removed the frayed and faded ribbons from all public places and suggested community members follow suit.
The ribbons have been collected by the school district and will be given to the families of the boys who died, Chardon City Manager Randy Sharpe said.
Many people, he acknowledged, wish the ribbons could stay. “But, the ones that are tired and dingy reflect poorly on the community,” Sharpe said.
Officials said the city is looking to create a permanent memorial to honor the victims, the schools and community—a process that may take another one to two years.
Chardon resident Jamie Ward is among those people ready to move on. He and his wife, Sandy, had just moved to town shortly before the tragedy and have since had a son, Peter, now 10 weeks old.
“For me, the one-year mark is hard,” said Ward as he held his young son. “A year later, I don’t want Chardon to always be associated with such a thing."
(The Associated Press contributed information in this story.)