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What the Brenda Spencer shooting tells us about Uvalde

Witnesses from that Cleveland School day hesitant about her parole

Mike Simpson remembers the shooting at Grover Cleveland Elementary School with his wife, Cristin.
Mike Simpson remembers the shooting at Grover Cleveland Elementary School with his wife, Cristin.

Simpson surveys surroundings

It takes Mike Simpson 25 steps to reach his parked car from the emergency exit at work. Once in the car, he can maneuver his way out of the parking lot, around the bend and onto Fletcher Parkway in 13 seconds flat. He knows. He has counted the steps, timed the drive. Simpson is perpetually aware of his surroundings, in no small part because he is one of the oldest student witnesses to the first elementary school shooting in American history.

He was nine years old when he saw his classmates at Grover Cleveland Elementary School being pelted with bullets on January 29th of 1979 in the sleepy neighborhood of San Carlos, situated on the eastern edge of San Diego. The shots rang out just before 8:30 am; the shooter was a 16-year-old girl equipped with a .52 rifle named Brenda Spencer, who lived in a run-down house directly across the street. From her vantage point, she had a clear shot at the kids who were waiting outside for the morning bell to ring. In total, she shot 36 rounds into the schoolyard. Simpson was directly in the line of fire.

Today, he says, “When we go out to eat, I need to see the front door. I have to have a visual on it. I always know how I will escape if I need to.” We are sitting in the dining room of his home in El Cajon. His wife Cristin is seated next to him. She nods her head and says, “He always backs into parking spots.”

“Cristin always asks, ‘Why do you back into spots?’ Well, it takes you longer to back out.”

Family photographs adorn the walls behind him. Mostly, they’re of his two sons, plus a few of him and his wife, smiling for the camera. The pair were high school sweethearts; both attended Patrick Henry High School. Mike is now in his early fifties. He wears a ball cap over his brown hair. He has pale blue eyes and an athletic build. He is gruff and a little bit persnickety.

Simpson has attempted to put that day in 1979 behind him, to keep the memories tucked away. Even so, he says, “It’s so clear in my mind, like it happened yesterday” — the sway of the branches on the tree in front of the school, the blur of his schoolmates as they ran, the terrible sound of the gunshots. There are tears in his eyes as he recounts this. It may be that the memories and emotions are fresher than normal, because the shooter, Brenda Spencer, has a parole hearing in two days, on August 18.

The morning of the shooting was typical, until it wasn’t. Young Simpson walked the short four blocks to school with his neighbor friends. The older kids, the fourth and fifth graders, always met out front near the flagpole to run around and goof off until school started. That day was no different. Simpson headed for the front of the school while his little sister ran to the kindergarten playground around back.

“I heard a pop,” he recalls, “and I thought, Someone brought firecrackers to school!” For a moment, the idea was exciting, but then Simpson looked over his shoulder and saw fellow fourth grader Cam Miller lying on the ground. What followed was a hectic and confusing several minutes wherein Simpson’s nine-year-old brain attempted to process the unfolding scene. “I could hear Cam groaning. He was saying, ‘Oh, my stomach!’ I was standing next to Crystal [Hardy], and she started really crying. She was holding her wrist, and I saw blood. Then, I felt a bullet go by my head. I turned around and I saw all these kids running. It was kind of chaotic.”

Simpson ran too, but in the opposite direction, towards the school office. There was a brick wall about 20 feet away. If he could get behind that, he thought, he would be shielded from the gunfire. He ran past a window, “and it went clink. I looked up and the window had a bullet hole in it, and was cracked.” When he reached the wall, he took cover and scanned the front of the school, trying to figure out where the shots were coming from. “I kept looking out because I was scared. I saw the principal come out of the office and run towards the kids that were still on the ground. I saw him take a bullet. I watched him get shot. I was freaking out. There were a lot of emotions. I was really scared.”

Simpson doesn’t know how long he remained behind that brick wall. It could have been minutes or hours. Time froze. It seemed like a lifetime. When the bullets finally stopped and the campus was still, he put his head between his legs and sobbed. Not long after, a policeman spotted him, motioned for him to stay down, then scooped him up and ran him through the kindergarten playground and into the auditorium, where all the other kids had been barricaded inside for safety.

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Two people were killed that day: school principal Burton Wragg and the school custodian Michael Suchar, both of whom were bravely attempting to rescue children from the scene. In addition, eight students were injured, and police officer Robert Robb was shot in the neck. Because of his injury, Robb spent the rest of his career on light desk duty. Simpson tries not to get choked up as he remembers Principal Wragg. “He was awesome. He talked baseball with me all the time. All the time! I don’t even know if he was a big baseball fan, but he knew I was.”

Over the years, he has often wondered about the officer who rushed him to safety that day. “I have tried to figure out who he was, but I never have. I’d love to know, just to say thank you.” His voice is thick with emotion.

A plaque in memory of principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Suchar stands at the former school site.

Cop drives trash truck

Retired police officer Ted Kasinak is certain he was not the one who grabbed Simpson. He would’ve remembered. He was, however, the officer who managed to block Brenda Spencer’s bullets by parking a garbage truck in front of her line of fire. Like Simpson, Kasinak’s first thought upon hearing of the event was that it was a firecracker. “When the call came in, I thought, That has to be an error. But as more reports came in, I realized it was a little more serious.”

School shootings were rarer in those days; Kasinak was not trained in how to respond. Looking back, he wonders if that may have worked to his advantage. “When I first got there, I came up on the backside of Lake Arrowhead Drive. As soon as I got out of the car, I could hear gunshots. That’s when I heard on the radio, ‘We are getting shot at! We need cover now.’” He got back in his squad car and drove around to the other side of the school. “As soon as I got around the corner, a big sanitation trash truck came pulling up. I stopped him, because I didn’t want him to keep driving towards the school. Then I thought, This is a lot bigger than the size of a police car. I had a little Ford Torino. So I got in the driver’s seat and tried to figure it out. I pushed a yellow button, and it released the brakes. I started driving [back to the school].”

An oversized RV was parked near the school’s one-way entrance; Kasinak narrowly avoided it. He could hear gunfire, and he could make out the shapes of bodies lying on the ground in front of the school. He steered the trash truck across the lot and stopped such that “the trash truck basically shielded that whole front part of the school from the bullets. I got out and started getting the custodian and the principal out of there. We got gurneys in to get them loaded up to go to the hospital. Unfortunately, the principal had already died. The custodian was still alive, but he passed away either at the hospital or on the way. As far as the kids, a lot of the kids got transferred out of there somewhere between me getting there or shortly after. Officer Robert Robb didn’t even know he had been shot in the neck until he was at the hospital and noticed blood on his collar.”

Kasinak recalls shaking his head in disbelief when he discovered who was responsible for that day’s tragic events. “You are talking about a girl who was only about five foot tall and 100 pounds soaking wet. It was amazing to me when I saw who it was doing the shooting. I just thought, Wow, she is just a kid! It was shocking.” When hostage negotiators managed to convince Spencer to surrender at around 2:30 pm, Kasinak remembers, “One of my captains said, ‘Take her down to homicide with Patty [Bernathy],’ So we put her in the backseat. I had my rearview mirror up. It was kind of a spooky feeling looking back at her. She didn’t say one word, just glared at that rearview the whole ride down there. I just remember seeing her long red hair, that blue ski hat, and those avatar sunglasses and thinking, She is such a young gal, why would she do something like that?

When asked how he feels about Brenda Spencer’s possible parole, Kasinak is diplomatic, “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I know she claimed to be under the influence that day. I don’t know if she ever claimed to be remorseful. Would she be safe coming out? I don’t know. When you see people getting paroled like that, I just wonder, have they really learned? Will they re-offend? I kind of worry about that. She has been in prison all this time. Was she getting proper treatment?”

Shot kids, strong feelings

Back in Mike Simpson’s dining room, I am hesitant to mention Brenda Spencer at all. But her upcoming parole hearing is why I’m here talking to him, why I’m asking him to remember. His face twists into a grimace over the idea of her release. He says, “Nothing will surprise me anymore, with the way our country is! But it will be hugely detrimental to all victims of school shootings if they allow her to be free. It will be a slap in the face to anybody that has experienced that. I will be angry!”

Cristin lets out a heavy sigh and says, matter-of-factly, “In your lifetime, she’ll probably get out.”

Simpson fumes, and shouts “Why? She was given 25 years to LIFE!” Two terms of 25 years to life, in fact.

Cristin remains calm and adds, with a shake of her head, “Because she served her time.”

Simpson shakes his head in disgust before adding, “I don’t care how old she is. She better not come around here.”

His anger is understandable. He remembers what is was like entering the school auditorium that day. The kids who had been shot were all in there. He saw Cam Miller on a gurney and Crystal Hardy with her arm wrapped up. He remembers many kids acting like it was just a normal day, incapable of fully grasping the severity and danger of their situation. Simpson also vividly recalls being led with the other kids outside and across the schoolyard. “We had to walk what seemed like a mile to get to the buses that were on the backside of the street. We walked up the playground and down the backside, way far — I mean, our playground was huge! At least when I was in elementary school, I thought that. It seemed like a mile to get to the buses to take us to Pershing [Middle School].” Once they were all on the buses, the teachers sang songs to calm the kids as they left campus.

Mary Clark was on the bus with Simpson. He remembers how she was slumped over in her seat. “At this point, she had not told anyone she was shot. I think she was in shock. I don’t think she knew. When we got to Pershing, and started getting off the bus, that is when Mary was like, ‘My stomach hurts.’ She lifted up her jacket and she was bleeding. I just remember all the kids peering down, looking over their seats at her. They rushed her to the hospital.”

When the school opened back up weeks later, parents and kids gathered to walk there together. “It was like we were in parade walking there,” Simpson recalls. “There was a memorial—flowers and candles by the flagpole. The flag was flying at half-mast. I remember that. That was the first time I learned what that meant. I was like, ‘Why is the flag only halfway up?’ I used to be one of the kids that put the flag up in the morning, so I was like, ‘Ugh, I gotta fix that!’ I had no idea.”

Not much to hear at the hearing

Brenda Spencer’s August 18 parole hearing is virtual. There are only a handful of attendees. Among them, only one victim, Cam Miller. When his face appears on my computer screen in its tiny box, I picture him the way Mike described him, as a little boy running around the flagpole at Grover Cleveland elementary. Miller has gray hair now. He wears a crisp white button-down shirt with a scarlet tie.

Parole commissioner David Ndudim, who is overseeing the hearing, instructs everyone on the call to state their full names and occupations for Spencer before commencing the meeting. Spencer nods after each introduction. She is sitting in a wheelchair in a brightly lit room at The California Institute for Women in Chino. Only half her body is visible. The prison’s computer camera is situated so that her left side is cut off from view. Her red hair looks dull under the harsh fluorescent lighting. Her face is round and ruddy. She wears prison blues and eyeglasses. Her mouth and nose are covered by a white surgical mask. She speaks when spoken to, and offers only short responses. Her body language does not give away any emotion; I cannot tell if she is scared or anxious or remorseful.

Now 58, Spencer was recently inducted into the Golden Girls, a perk program given to older prisoners. As a result, she has a front-line pass for meals and medications. She is now allotted two pillows, three blankets, two mattresses, and the coveted bottom bunk spot. I wonder if, like Mike Simpson, she knows how many steps it takes to exit the dining hall and get back to her cell if shit goes down.

Ted Kasinak was not trained in how to respond to school shootings. Looking back, he wonders if that may have worked to his advantage.

Commissioner Ndudim asks Brenda a series of basic questions, questions I imagine are asked during every parole hearing. Brenda answers each one, her tone steady and self-assured. When Commissioner Ndudim is done addressing Brenda. he addresses Spencer’s lawyer, saying, “Counselor, you indicated that your client would like to make a request to the panel this morning. Proceed.”

Spencer’s lawyer responds: “Yes, we are requesting a three-year stipulation so that my client may continue to develop and firm up parole plans and be prepared for the hearing.”

Ndudim addresses Spencer formally, asking: “Ms. Spencer, your attorney has made the request and communicated that you want to have a three-year stipulation. Is that correct?”

Spencer nods and politely answers: “Yes, it is, sir.”

Ndudim: “Do you, Miss Spencer, understand that you do have a right to a hearing today?”

Spencer: “Yes.”

Ndudim: “You understand that you are giving up that right?”

Spencer: “Yes”

And with that, the hearing recesses while they discuss the stay. I remain on the call. Brenda and her lawyer’s cameras remain on. That’s when I get a tiny glimpse of Brenda’s personality. Her lawyer is sitting in what appears to be a home office. Behind her is a cage with a colorful bird inside. The lawyer motions toward her bird and mentions that normally, under different circumstances, the bird would be out of its cage. This seems like a twisted metaphor.

“It would’ve said hello to you,” the lawyer says with a bright smile.

Even though there is a mask over her face, I can tell by the soft wrinkles around Spencer’s eyes that she is smiling, too. She lets out a small child-like laugh and her body relaxes. But it’s only for a second, because then her lawyer announces, “Oh, they are back.” Brenda stiffens and looks into the camera while the hearing proceeds.

Commissioner Ndudim announces, “The panel does accept the stipulation for three years. You do understand that you do have a right to a hearing today, correct?”

Spencer’s tone is even when she responds, “Correct.”

Ndudim asks: “You are making this request freely?”

Spencer: “Yes.”

Ndudim adds, “Mr. Miller, do you want to make a victim impact statement, or wait until the next panel?”

Miller looks at the camera and says, “I will wait, sir.”

With that, the hearing is adjourned. Brenda Spencer will get another chance for freedom in three years.

Then and now

When I ask Ted Kasinak if he thinks modern training and updated equipment would’ve made a difference on that day back in 1979, he shakes his head. “I went into SWAT shortly after the incident. What I learned on SWAT was, a lot of times you just have to improvise. If you get into a situation of this kind — I mean, who would have known that that trash truck would come along? Regardless, I would have tried to help one way or another, but seeing that truck, I just thought, What could be better? It was the perfect cover. Those are the things you have to do. I mean, when you look at other shootings — things happen so quick. A lot of times, you aren’t there right on time. It’s trying to get in there and do what you can as fast as you can.”

Kasinak tries not to get bogged down by reading up on all the recent school shootings. “Coming from SWAT, I have seen things; it has affected me to some extent, but I try not take it home and have it bury me. But in the back of your mind, it’s always there. Throughout the years, I worried about school shootings. I had two boys. I never wanted to see that happen to them. This one that happened in Texas was really sad. I don’t want to Monday morning quarterback, because I wasn’t there, but the things I have heard and seen on that shooting — my God, I can’t imagine! Officers lined up in the hallways and no one is moving. Meanwhile, you’ve got shots being fired down in the classroom. There were a lot of things that probably should’ve been done. I just kind of shake my head. You ask any officer, and they are thinking, ‘You didn’t go in and at least do something!?’ They could have tried many different tactics. At least try! It was disappointing to see coming from law enforcement.”

Mike Simpson was also shocked by Uvalde. “I don’t get triggered by school shootings, but I do get sad. This last one, Uvalde, I indulged myself too far into it. I got really angry. When I found out what the police did not do, I was enraged! I cannot imagine standing around for 45 minutes doing absolutely nothing, watching and knowing kids are dying! I legitimately cannot fathom how any human being with a heartbeat could’ve let that happen. That infuriated me to no end because I can visualize it; I have been there. How can somebody that is a sworn officer allow something like that to happen!”

Cristin Simpson is a teacher, and their oldest son, Tyler, is in the process of becoming a police officer. Simpson worries about them both. “I went to Cristin’s classroom last week to check it out. I’ll tell you this, she will not be able to go out of a window! There are only two ways out of her classroom, one door on one side and a door on the other side. There is a fire extinguisher by one door but not the other door. The windows are very high, so she can duck down and be safe, but they can’t get out. They are sitting ducks in there.”

Adds Cristin, “It’s stressful, because now, not only am I responsible for teaching, I am expected to take a bullet for my students. And, they want to give me a gun. That is even funnier!”

Without skipping a beat, Simpson says, “I think she should have a gun, and I think she needs to go shoot a gun.”

Cristin shakes her head over the thought as Simpson continues, “I have always been apprehensive about guns. I was never excited about my kids playing with guns when they were little. They had nerf guns, that’s it. But a buddy of mine recently took me shooting up at Palomar Mountain. I felt the power you feel when holding a gun. It was empowering! I was always afraid of guns, but now I am not afraid.”

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Mike Simpson remembers the shooting at Grover Cleveland Elementary School with his wife, Cristin.
Mike Simpson remembers the shooting at Grover Cleveland Elementary School with his wife, Cristin.

Simpson surveys surroundings

It takes Mike Simpson 25 steps to reach his parked car from the emergency exit at work. Once in the car, he can maneuver his way out of the parking lot, around the bend and onto Fletcher Parkway in 13 seconds flat. He knows. He has counted the steps, timed the drive. Simpson is perpetually aware of his surroundings, in no small part because he is one of the oldest student witnesses to the first elementary school shooting in American history.

He was nine years old when he saw his classmates at Grover Cleveland Elementary School being pelted with bullets on January 29th of 1979 in the sleepy neighborhood of San Carlos, situated on the eastern edge of San Diego. The shots rang out just before 8:30 am; the shooter was a 16-year-old girl equipped with a .52 rifle named Brenda Spencer, who lived in a run-down house directly across the street. From her vantage point, she had a clear shot at the kids who were waiting outside for the morning bell to ring. In total, she shot 36 rounds into the schoolyard. Simpson was directly in the line of fire.

Today, he says, “When we go out to eat, I need to see the front door. I have to have a visual on it. I always know how I will escape if I need to.” We are sitting in the dining room of his home in El Cajon. His wife Cristin is seated next to him. She nods her head and says, “He always backs into parking spots.”

“Cristin always asks, ‘Why do you back into spots?’ Well, it takes you longer to back out.”

Family photographs adorn the walls behind him. Mostly, they’re of his two sons, plus a few of him and his wife, smiling for the camera. The pair were high school sweethearts; both attended Patrick Henry High School. Mike is now in his early fifties. He wears a ball cap over his brown hair. He has pale blue eyes and an athletic build. He is gruff and a little bit persnickety.

Simpson has attempted to put that day in 1979 behind him, to keep the memories tucked away. Even so, he says, “It’s so clear in my mind, like it happened yesterday” — the sway of the branches on the tree in front of the school, the blur of his schoolmates as they ran, the terrible sound of the gunshots. There are tears in his eyes as he recounts this. It may be that the memories and emotions are fresher than normal, because the shooter, Brenda Spencer, has a parole hearing in two days, on August 18.

The morning of the shooting was typical, until it wasn’t. Young Simpson walked the short four blocks to school with his neighbor friends. The older kids, the fourth and fifth graders, always met out front near the flagpole to run around and goof off until school started. That day was no different. Simpson headed for the front of the school while his little sister ran to the kindergarten playground around back.

“I heard a pop,” he recalls, “and I thought, Someone brought firecrackers to school!” For a moment, the idea was exciting, but then Simpson looked over his shoulder and saw fellow fourth grader Cam Miller lying on the ground. What followed was a hectic and confusing several minutes wherein Simpson’s nine-year-old brain attempted to process the unfolding scene. “I could hear Cam groaning. He was saying, ‘Oh, my stomach!’ I was standing next to Crystal [Hardy], and she started really crying. She was holding her wrist, and I saw blood. Then, I felt a bullet go by my head. I turned around and I saw all these kids running. It was kind of chaotic.”

Simpson ran too, but in the opposite direction, towards the school office. There was a brick wall about 20 feet away. If he could get behind that, he thought, he would be shielded from the gunfire. He ran past a window, “and it went clink. I looked up and the window had a bullet hole in it, and was cracked.” When he reached the wall, he took cover and scanned the front of the school, trying to figure out where the shots were coming from. “I kept looking out because I was scared. I saw the principal come out of the office and run towards the kids that were still on the ground. I saw him take a bullet. I watched him get shot. I was freaking out. There were a lot of emotions. I was really scared.”

Simpson doesn’t know how long he remained behind that brick wall. It could have been minutes or hours. Time froze. It seemed like a lifetime. When the bullets finally stopped and the campus was still, he put his head between his legs and sobbed. Not long after, a policeman spotted him, motioned for him to stay down, then scooped him up and ran him through the kindergarten playground and into the auditorium, where all the other kids had been barricaded inside for safety.

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Two people were killed that day: school principal Burton Wragg and the school custodian Michael Suchar, both of whom were bravely attempting to rescue children from the scene. In addition, eight students were injured, and police officer Robert Robb was shot in the neck. Because of his injury, Robb spent the rest of his career on light desk duty. Simpson tries not to get choked up as he remembers Principal Wragg. “He was awesome. He talked baseball with me all the time. All the time! I don’t even know if he was a big baseball fan, but he knew I was.”

Over the years, he has often wondered about the officer who rushed him to safety that day. “I have tried to figure out who he was, but I never have. I’d love to know, just to say thank you.” His voice is thick with emotion.

A plaque in memory of principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Suchar stands at the former school site.

Cop drives trash truck

Retired police officer Ted Kasinak is certain he was not the one who grabbed Simpson. He would’ve remembered. He was, however, the officer who managed to block Brenda Spencer’s bullets by parking a garbage truck in front of her line of fire. Like Simpson, Kasinak’s first thought upon hearing of the event was that it was a firecracker. “When the call came in, I thought, That has to be an error. But as more reports came in, I realized it was a little more serious.”

School shootings were rarer in those days; Kasinak was not trained in how to respond. Looking back, he wonders if that may have worked to his advantage. “When I first got there, I came up on the backside of Lake Arrowhead Drive. As soon as I got out of the car, I could hear gunshots. That’s when I heard on the radio, ‘We are getting shot at! We need cover now.’” He got back in his squad car and drove around to the other side of the school. “As soon as I got around the corner, a big sanitation trash truck came pulling up. I stopped him, because I didn’t want him to keep driving towards the school. Then I thought, This is a lot bigger than the size of a police car. I had a little Ford Torino. So I got in the driver’s seat and tried to figure it out. I pushed a yellow button, and it released the brakes. I started driving [back to the school].”

An oversized RV was parked near the school’s one-way entrance; Kasinak narrowly avoided it. He could hear gunfire, and he could make out the shapes of bodies lying on the ground in front of the school. He steered the trash truck across the lot and stopped such that “the trash truck basically shielded that whole front part of the school from the bullets. I got out and started getting the custodian and the principal out of there. We got gurneys in to get them loaded up to go to the hospital. Unfortunately, the principal had already died. The custodian was still alive, but he passed away either at the hospital or on the way. As far as the kids, a lot of the kids got transferred out of there somewhere between me getting there or shortly after. Officer Robert Robb didn’t even know he had been shot in the neck until he was at the hospital and noticed blood on his collar.”

Kasinak recalls shaking his head in disbelief when he discovered who was responsible for that day’s tragic events. “You are talking about a girl who was only about five foot tall and 100 pounds soaking wet. It was amazing to me when I saw who it was doing the shooting. I just thought, Wow, she is just a kid! It was shocking.” When hostage negotiators managed to convince Spencer to surrender at around 2:30 pm, Kasinak remembers, “One of my captains said, ‘Take her down to homicide with Patty [Bernathy],’ So we put her in the backseat. I had my rearview mirror up. It was kind of a spooky feeling looking back at her. She didn’t say one word, just glared at that rearview the whole ride down there. I just remember seeing her long red hair, that blue ski hat, and those avatar sunglasses and thinking, She is such a young gal, why would she do something like that?

When asked how he feels about Brenda Spencer’s possible parole, Kasinak is diplomatic, “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I know she claimed to be under the influence that day. I don’t know if she ever claimed to be remorseful. Would she be safe coming out? I don’t know. When you see people getting paroled like that, I just wonder, have they really learned? Will they re-offend? I kind of worry about that. She has been in prison all this time. Was she getting proper treatment?”

Shot kids, strong feelings

Back in Mike Simpson’s dining room, I am hesitant to mention Brenda Spencer at all. But her upcoming parole hearing is why I’m here talking to him, why I’m asking him to remember. His face twists into a grimace over the idea of her release. He says, “Nothing will surprise me anymore, with the way our country is! But it will be hugely detrimental to all victims of school shootings if they allow her to be free. It will be a slap in the face to anybody that has experienced that. I will be angry!”

Cristin lets out a heavy sigh and says, matter-of-factly, “In your lifetime, she’ll probably get out.”

Simpson fumes, and shouts “Why? She was given 25 years to LIFE!” Two terms of 25 years to life, in fact.

Cristin remains calm and adds, with a shake of her head, “Because she served her time.”

Simpson shakes his head in disgust before adding, “I don’t care how old she is. She better not come around here.”

His anger is understandable. He remembers what is was like entering the school auditorium that day. The kids who had been shot were all in there. He saw Cam Miller on a gurney and Crystal Hardy with her arm wrapped up. He remembers many kids acting like it was just a normal day, incapable of fully grasping the severity and danger of their situation. Simpson also vividly recalls being led with the other kids outside and across the schoolyard. “We had to walk what seemed like a mile to get to the buses that were on the backside of the street. We walked up the playground and down the backside, way far — I mean, our playground was huge! At least when I was in elementary school, I thought that. It seemed like a mile to get to the buses to take us to Pershing [Middle School].” Once they were all on the buses, the teachers sang songs to calm the kids as they left campus.

Mary Clark was on the bus with Simpson. He remembers how she was slumped over in her seat. “At this point, she had not told anyone she was shot. I think she was in shock. I don’t think she knew. When we got to Pershing, and started getting off the bus, that is when Mary was like, ‘My stomach hurts.’ She lifted up her jacket and she was bleeding. I just remember all the kids peering down, looking over their seats at her. They rushed her to the hospital.”

When the school opened back up weeks later, parents and kids gathered to walk there together. “It was like we were in parade walking there,” Simpson recalls. “There was a memorial—flowers and candles by the flagpole. The flag was flying at half-mast. I remember that. That was the first time I learned what that meant. I was like, ‘Why is the flag only halfway up?’ I used to be one of the kids that put the flag up in the morning, so I was like, ‘Ugh, I gotta fix that!’ I had no idea.”

Not much to hear at the hearing

Brenda Spencer’s August 18 parole hearing is virtual. There are only a handful of attendees. Among them, only one victim, Cam Miller. When his face appears on my computer screen in its tiny box, I picture him the way Mike described him, as a little boy running around the flagpole at Grover Cleveland elementary. Miller has gray hair now. He wears a crisp white button-down shirt with a scarlet tie.

Parole commissioner David Ndudim, who is overseeing the hearing, instructs everyone on the call to state their full names and occupations for Spencer before commencing the meeting. Spencer nods after each introduction. She is sitting in a wheelchair in a brightly lit room at The California Institute for Women in Chino. Only half her body is visible. The prison’s computer camera is situated so that her left side is cut off from view. Her red hair looks dull under the harsh fluorescent lighting. Her face is round and ruddy. She wears prison blues and eyeglasses. Her mouth and nose are covered by a white surgical mask. She speaks when spoken to, and offers only short responses. Her body language does not give away any emotion; I cannot tell if she is scared or anxious or remorseful.

Now 58, Spencer was recently inducted into the Golden Girls, a perk program given to older prisoners. As a result, she has a front-line pass for meals and medications. She is now allotted two pillows, three blankets, two mattresses, and the coveted bottom bunk spot. I wonder if, like Mike Simpson, she knows how many steps it takes to exit the dining hall and get back to her cell if shit goes down.

Ted Kasinak was not trained in how to respond to school shootings. Looking back, he wonders if that may have worked to his advantage.

Commissioner Ndudim asks Brenda a series of basic questions, questions I imagine are asked during every parole hearing. Brenda answers each one, her tone steady and self-assured. When Commissioner Ndudim is done addressing Brenda. he addresses Spencer’s lawyer, saying, “Counselor, you indicated that your client would like to make a request to the panel this morning. Proceed.”

Spencer’s lawyer responds: “Yes, we are requesting a three-year stipulation so that my client may continue to develop and firm up parole plans and be prepared for the hearing.”

Ndudim addresses Spencer formally, asking: “Ms. Spencer, your attorney has made the request and communicated that you want to have a three-year stipulation. Is that correct?”

Spencer nods and politely answers: “Yes, it is, sir.”

Ndudim: “Do you, Miss Spencer, understand that you do have a right to a hearing today?”

Spencer: “Yes.”

Ndudim: “You understand that you are giving up that right?”

Spencer: “Yes”

And with that, the hearing recesses while they discuss the stay. I remain on the call. Brenda and her lawyer’s cameras remain on. That’s when I get a tiny glimpse of Brenda’s personality. Her lawyer is sitting in what appears to be a home office. Behind her is a cage with a colorful bird inside. The lawyer motions toward her bird and mentions that normally, under different circumstances, the bird would be out of its cage. This seems like a twisted metaphor.

“It would’ve said hello to you,” the lawyer says with a bright smile.

Even though there is a mask over her face, I can tell by the soft wrinkles around Spencer’s eyes that she is smiling, too. She lets out a small child-like laugh and her body relaxes. But it’s only for a second, because then her lawyer announces, “Oh, they are back.” Brenda stiffens and looks into the camera while the hearing proceeds.

Commissioner Ndudim announces, “The panel does accept the stipulation for three years. You do understand that you do have a right to a hearing today, correct?”

Spencer’s tone is even when she responds, “Correct.”

Ndudim asks: “You are making this request freely?”

Spencer: “Yes.”

Ndudim adds, “Mr. Miller, do you want to make a victim impact statement, or wait until the next panel?”

Miller looks at the camera and says, “I will wait, sir.”

With that, the hearing is adjourned. Brenda Spencer will get another chance for freedom in three years.

Then and now

When I ask Ted Kasinak if he thinks modern training and updated equipment would’ve made a difference on that day back in 1979, he shakes his head. “I went into SWAT shortly after the incident. What I learned on SWAT was, a lot of times you just have to improvise. If you get into a situation of this kind — I mean, who would have known that that trash truck would come along? Regardless, I would have tried to help one way or another, but seeing that truck, I just thought, What could be better? It was the perfect cover. Those are the things you have to do. I mean, when you look at other shootings — things happen so quick. A lot of times, you aren’t there right on time. It’s trying to get in there and do what you can as fast as you can.”

Kasinak tries not to get bogged down by reading up on all the recent school shootings. “Coming from SWAT, I have seen things; it has affected me to some extent, but I try not take it home and have it bury me. But in the back of your mind, it’s always there. Throughout the years, I worried about school shootings. I had two boys. I never wanted to see that happen to them. This one that happened in Texas was really sad. I don’t want to Monday morning quarterback, because I wasn’t there, but the things I have heard and seen on that shooting — my God, I can’t imagine! Officers lined up in the hallways and no one is moving. Meanwhile, you’ve got shots being fired down in the classroom. There were a lot of things that probably should’ve been done. I just kind of shake my head. You ask any officer, and they are thinking, ‘You didn’t go in and at least do something!?’ They could have tried many different tactics. At least try! It was disappointing to see coming from law enforcement.”

Mike Simpson was also shocked by Uvalde. “I don’t get triggered by school shootings, but I do get sad. This last one, Uvalde, I indulged myself too far into it. I got really angry. When I found out what the police did not do, I was enraged! I cannot imagine standing around for 45 minutes doing absolutely nothing, watching and knowing kids are dying! I legitimately cannot fathom how any human being with a heartbeat could’ve let that happen. That infuriated me to no end because I can visualize it; I have been there. How can somebody that is a sworn officer allow something like that to happen!”

Cristin Simpson is a teacher, and their oldest son, Tyler, is in the process of becoming a police officer. Simpson worries about them both. “I went to Cristin’s classroom last week to check it out. I’ll tell you this, she will not be able to go out of a window! There are only two ways out of her classroom, one door on one side and a door on the other side. There is a fire extinguisher by one door but not the other door. The windows are very high, so she can duck down and be safe, but they can’t get out. They are sitting ducks in there.”

Adds Cristin, “It’s stressful, because now, not only am I responsible for teaching, I am expected to take a bullet for my students. And, they want to give me a gun. That is even funnier!”

Without skipping a beat, Simpson says, “I think she should have a gun, and I think she needs to go shoot a gun.”

Cristin shakes her head over the thought as Simpson continues, “I have always been apprehensive about guns. I was never excited about my kids playing with guns when they were little. They had nerf guns, that’s it. But a buddy of mine recently took me shooting up at Palomar Mountain. I felt the power you feel when holding a gun. It was empowering! I was always afraid of guns, but now I am not afraid.”

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