Like Uvalde, a gunman opened fire in an SC school. Decades later the trauma endures

Teacher Ellie Hodge smiled at the young man standing in the cafeteria door at Oakland Elementary School. She thought he was there to have lunch with a student.

Then she saw the gun.

Greenwood, South Carolina. 1988.

Two 3rd graders, shot to death. Nine injured, including Hodge and the physical education teacher who tried to chase down the shooter, 19-year-old Jamie Wilson.

The survivors have had decades to grapple with what they saw and felt that day. The horror never truly goes away.

Each time another school shooting takes place in America they are reminded even more deeply.

The May 24 killing of 10 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was especially poignant, many of them said. A small town, an elementary school, a stranger with a gun.

Greenwood represents an early chapter in the singularly American story of gun violence in schools. The survivors have a unique perspective from a span of nearly 34 years as they have worked to come to grips with the trauma and tragedy, sending children of their own off to school and watching similar scenes unfold in community after community.

Amid the ongoing debate about ending gun violence in schools, several survivors agreed to talk about how the shooting shaped their lives.

Eleanor Rice Elementary School, once known as Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, South Carolina on Friday, June 3, 2022.
Eleanor Rice Elementary School, once known as Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, South Carolina on Friday, June 3, 2022.

A man at the door

Wilson, who had previously been hospitalized for schizophrenia, stole a .22 caliber revolver from a mantel in his grandmother’s house and drove his 14-year-old Maverick to Oakland Elementary in Greenwood, then a city of 20,000 people, 80 miles northwest of Columbia.

Wilson walked in the school’s front door and down a hallway, turned right and immediately came upon the cafeteria. He stopped at the first of two entrances and peered inside.

Hodge’s class of first graders had just gone through the lunch line and sat down to eat hamburgers and french fries. Hodge added her usual sweet tea. Sitting at the end of a table near the door, she was one month into her first teaching job.

Ellie Hodge was in her first year of teaching at Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C. in 1988 when a gunman entered the school and began shooting. Hodge and eight others were injured and two students died.
Ellie Hodge was in her first year of teaching at Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C. in 1988 when a gunman entered the school and began shooting. Hodge and eight others were injured and two students died.

Instinctively, she raised her hand as Wilson fired. A bullet entered the side of her hand near the base of her pinkie, traveled across her palm and exited below her thumb. She doesn’t remember what happened next.

Wilson fired at her again. Striking her in the shoulder, the bullet moving through her back and out the other shoulder. He then shot a boy in the arm and a girl in the shoulder, the bullet coming out the back of her neck. Another shot grazed a first grader.

Wilson fled, turned down the third- and fourth-grade hall and into a nearby bathroom to reload.

Physical education teacher Kat Finkbeiner followed and tried to trap him in the bathroom. He overpowered her and shot her twice, in the mouth and hand. Undaunted, she trailed him into the third-grade classroom of Palsy Higginbothem, a longtime teacher at Oakland whose husband was the Greenwood city manager.

The girls’ bathroom where physical education teacher Kat Finkbeiner tried to stop Jamie Wilson, who killed two students with a revolver at Eleanor Rice Elementary School, once known as Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, South Carolina. Friday, June 3, 2022.
The girls’ bathroom where physical education teacher Kat Finkbeiner tried to stop Jamie Wilson, who killed two students with a revolver at Eleanor Rice Elementary School, once known as Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, South Carolina. Friday, June 3, 2022.

Higginbothem was sitting at a u-shaped table near the door listening to a small group of students read from a third-grade reading series. Wilson shot at her, but the bullet traveled between her and student Randee Gregory and struck the chalkboard behind them.

Student Shequila Bradley stood and screamed. Wilson shot her. Also wounded was Leah Holmes, who ran with Shequila to the office. Leah, shot in the arm, survived. Shequila did not.

Tequila Thomas was in the reading group, across from Higginbothem and Gregory. Wilson took another shot at the teacher, but hit Tequila in the neck.

After Wilson left the room, Higginbothem helped her students through a window and summoned paramedics to help carry Tequila out. She remembers them gathering items in the hallway to use as a makeshift cot.

When all were outside, she started out of the window. That’s when she heard a man say, “I’m not going to hurt you now.” The gunman was back.

“It scared me to death,” Higginbothem said. “I thought he was going to kill me. I got out of the window and ran.”

He laid down the gun, went out the window after the teacher and was held by school principal Eleanor Rice until police arrived.

A matter of minutes.

The aftermath

Through the years, victims have filled in the details their mind told them not to remember. Some learned from others, others remembered on their own.

Hodge was pulled into a freezer by cafeteria personnel.

Shortly after the shooting, Hodge’s mother noticed a bruise on her daughter’s neck. They realized the bullet that went through her hand had bounced off her neck. Officers found a fragment on her lunchroom chair.

Hodge worried for many years she had abandoned her students by running away. Hypnotherapy helped her see she did not, and coffee many years later with one of the students confirmed that. She told the children to run and made sure they were safely outside.

“She was a hero,” said Shannon Hill, who was in Hodge’s first-grade class and sitting beside her when the shooting started.

Hill remembers kids standing, screaming and running out the second door. She fled to nearby woods; others ran across the street to a neighbor’s house.

When she saw her fourth-grade brother she hugged him tight. His teacher told her in a kind voice she needed to find her teacher.

“My teacher’s been shot,” she responded. And the teacher sat her down with her class.

A cafeteria worker put Hodge in her car to take her to the hospital, but a law enforcement officer told them not to leave; some were hurt worse.

Gregory said, “I’ve blacked out a lot of it. My third-grade mind said, ‘Let’s not.’”

Someone shoved her into the hallway. A boy grabbed her hand and they “took off running.” The assistant principal heard them, opened her door and dragged them inside. They stayed until police arrived.

Demetricus Fortune was at the table beside Hodge when he saw his friend, LaShonda Burt, shot. A girl nearby screamed and he dragged her into the kitchen. For the longest time afterward he had nightmares.

“It’s like I’m in a sunken place — out of body — hovering over it and seeing it as an old TV show,” he said.

Fortune keeps Wilson’s prison photo in his phone. Wilson remains on death row after pleading guilty to homicide but mentally ill.

The two who died

Shequila Bradley, known as Key, will forever be the girl with the big smile shown in her school yearbook photo. A Greenwood Index Journal story described her as larger than life — the kind of friend who gave her lunch to someone who had none.

Her teacher, Higginbothem, said in an interview with The State Shequila and Tequila Thomas, who died three days after the shooting at Self Memorial Hospital, were precious little girls.

“I missed them all that year,” she said.

Where Shequila was friendly, Tequila was quiet.

An Associated Press story from the time said 1,000 people attended her funeral on a Sunday in October 1988. Teachers sat near her white casket. Classmates, too.

So many people were there, some sat in chairs outside and listened to the service on loudspeakers.

Tequila was described as exceptionally bright.

Shequila was buried the Friday before Tequila. Classmates and teachers attended her funeral as well.

“There were fantastic people, who probably would have lit the world on fire,” Hodge said in an Interview with The State.

A memorial garden was planted in their memory at the edge of the woods beside the school parking lot. It includes a statue of a child with angel wings, erected by Northside Junior High, benches and two plaques bearing the girls’ names.

Survivors interviewed for this story were especially mindful of their families and the sorrow they experienced then and feel still. They could not be reached for comment for this story.

A memorial for two third graders, Sheila Bradley and Tequila Thomas, killed at Oakland Elementary School, now Eleanor Rice Elementary School, in Greenwood, South Carolina in a school shooting in 1988. The memorial garden is attached to an outdoor classroom and walking path.
A memorial for two third graders, Sheila Bradley and Tequila Thomas, killed at Oakland Elementary School, now Eleanor Rice Elementary School, in Greenwood, South Carolina in a school shooting in 1988. The memorial garden is attached to an outdoor classroom and walking path.

Return to school

School janitors did not want to clean up so the job fell to principal Eleanor Rice, her husband highway patrolman Easton Martin Rice Jr., known as Footsie, and their 9-year-old son. Higginbothem remembers throwing away bloody books. There was nothing to be done about the bullet holes in the walls and the chalkboard.

The shooting happened on Monday. Students returned on Thursday.

That fact amazes everyone in current day education and it amazed the students who lived it even more. Compare that to the number of schools that never reopened after a shooting, including Uvalde, where parents pleaded not to go back and Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Hal Harrell announced they are looking for a new location.

In Greenwood, students and their parents were given a tour of the school beforehand, but counseling was limited, the students say. There wasn’t much of an understanding that it was needed.

Gregory remembers even as a third grader wondering if they should be back.

After the shooting, she couldn’t sleep without some sort of noise in the room. She still sleeps with the television on.

And no one really talked about it. A blessing. And as it turned out, a curse.

“It was just kind of hushed up. ‘Let’s not talk about it,’” she said.

Higginbothem said she felt an intense obligation to teach and teach and teach some more to occupy their minds. She put felt on the legs of the desks to minimize noise. Students cried when an adult came to the door. Some had asthma attacks.

Mothers and fathers sat in classrooms. Footsie Rice stood by the school entrance more often than not. Deputies, including Natalie Talbert, who went on to work for SLED and now is the district safety officer, ate lunch with students.

Hodge returned to school in November. She walked in holding hands with her parents. It was hard and she was keenly aware of how heroic students were to return so quickly.

Trauma never goes away

As years and decades have passed the students of Oakland dealt with trauma in various ways. Most tamped it down to varying degrees, only to see the memories return when yet another group of students were killed in schools.

They are stoic as they talk about the time, and yet, something catches them unaware and they become emotional. For Flowers, it was when he talked about the girl he helped into the kitchen who reached out to him not too many years ago to say he had saved her life.

“I just knew what a gun sounded like and thought, ‘Man I’ve got to get out of here,’” he said.

All of the people interviewed have children and they deal in varying ways with their fears that follow the children into their classrooms. Flowers said he was grateful for COVID restrictions that kept his children home.

Gregory made sure to show her daughter all the ways to leave the school in case of an emergency and she will do it again later this year when her youngest goes to kindergarten. It’s an especially tough year for her. Her daughter starts third grade.

The fear lingers. Gregory said she never sits with her back to the door in a public place.

Fortune said he has a routine each morning with his 11-year-old daughter who attends the same school where the shooting took place, now named for the former principal, Eleanor Rice.

He always says, “Hope your day goes well.”

When he hears sirens he worries — Is her day doing well?

Higginbothem transferred to another school and another grade. The memories fell hard and her classroom faced the memory garden. She said her husband became her counselor, listening to her as they sat on their backyard porch night after night recounting what had happened. Whenever another shooting takes place in a school, a teacher friend of hers calls to check on her.

A memorial for two third graders, Sheila Bradley and Tequila Thomas, killed at Oakland Elementary School, now Eleanor Rice Elementary School, in Greenwood, South Carolina in a school shooting in 1988. The memorial garden is attached to an outdoor classroom and walking path.
A memorial for two third graders, Sheila Bradley and Tequila Thomas, killed at Oakland Elementary School, now Eleanor Rice Elementary School, in Greenwood, South Carolina in a school shooting in 1988. The memorial garden is attached to an outdoor classroom and walking path.

She’s 84 now. Her husband died three years ago. She remains active and has a standing dinner date with her granddaughters each Wednesday.

Higginbothem runs into the students from that class every now and then.

“I remember all of their names,” she said.

The chief advocate

Hill has put trauma into action. Since her daughter started school 17 years ago, Hill has pressed school leaders time and again to introduce more safety measures. She has spoken to the school board numerous times and relentlessly researches safety measures.

In the early years of her children’s education, she worked on ensuring all doors are locked and that drills are commonplace. The doors were not locked when Wilson entered. Cameras, locked classroom doors, IDs for visitors, consistent training, more resource officers.

Some measures took years to enact. Just last October, Greenwood District 20 announced it has employed an app that would quickly notify police of a problem.

She once heard of a school official calling her derisively “safety mom.”

“I’ve been called worse,” she said.

No matter. Her mission is singular. Protect kids. When she started, she was concerned for her own children. Now, it’s much broader. She wants Greenwood District 50 to show the nation how to keep kids safe.

“Little things could make a huge difference,” she said.

She remembers asking a school official to have active shooter drills just as they have earthquake drills.

“I’ve never been in an earthquake,” she told him.

Greenwood School District 50’s Safety Officer Natalie Talbert describes her job as “finding cracks in the armor.”

“I can handle people disagreeing with me, talking about me behind my back, even talking about my mama. What I can’t handle is seeing a child lying there hurt,” she said.

Natalie Talbert is Greenwood School District 50’s safety officer.
Natalie Talbert is Greenwood School District 50’s safety officer.

She has 10 resource officer positions now, but a lack of appropriate candidates has kept five vacant.

She directs a safety team that conducts intensive checks before school begins each year and after school closes, looking for broken locks, checking buzzer systems, even looking at things like whether a bush has grown to obscure a window.

Safety is not convenient, she said.

“But it’s a small price to pay.”

The survivors have differing views about what can be done to stop school shootings. Higginbothem wonders if such a thing is possible. She thinks better mental health treatment could help and when she thinks back she wishes she had had a gun.

Hill believes there is no one answer, but an assortment of background checks, treatment. It’s a societal problem.

Gregrory thinks schools should be designed to prevent shootings, such as building the school around the playground. She has a concealed weapons permit and has no problem with background checks and other measures to keep guns away from people who shouldn’t have them.

Several mentioned having a military-trained officer inside each school. They also said they are painfully aware that if Wilson had access to a semi-automatic weapon they likely would not be here today.

Gathering places

A few years ago, Hill started a Facebook group so survivors could share memories. Many of the people interviewed said some of what they know now came from hearing from others on the social media site.

She also spearheaded a cleanup day for the memory garden, which honors Tequila Thomas and Shequila Bradley and was overgrown. It was held 30 years after the attack.

Many had not been back to the school since they left the fourth grade. Hill said she had been back once before and came upon a woman from a local garden club. That chance meeting brought about the cleanup.

”It was really emotional,” Hill said. “We took a moment for anybody who wanted to say something.”

Now she is working to find someone to provide help to all of those who were at Oakland that day who need to work on the trauma they still feel.

Gregory knows the shooting changed her in so many ways, but most of all, she says, “I appreciate life and realize how short it is.”

The school has been renamed for Eleanor Rice, who retired in 2001 and died in 2010. She was 40 when the shootings took place. Her son, who helped clean the school so many years ago, remembers her as a hero.

“This was new ground. There was no template,” Marty Rice said in a blog post about the shootings.

Hill has a message for everyone: “Don’t think it can’t happen to you. It can happen to you.”