25 years after a school shooting rocked Kentucky, a scarred community faces the shooter’s next parole hearing.


“I looked at my teacher, and I said, ‘Am I going to die?'” Missy, now 40, recalled. His algebra teacher was kneeling beside him, praying.

Missy was paralyzed from the chest down, and starting at age 15, she had to adapt to living in a wheelchair.

The shooter, now a 39-year-old man, is up for parole, and many members of the community are angry, struggling with the prospect of ever being seen free despite the dark and lasting mark left by the tragedy in Paducah.

Although he was convicted of the shooting and sentenced to life in prison in 1998, Kentucky law requires parole consideration for juveniles after 25 years. His parole hearing is Monday.

CNN spoke with some of the Paducah school shooting victims and their families ahead of the hearing. They reflected on what still haunts them from that day, and what they want others to know as their community still struggles to heal.

The scars that remain

A circular brick structure sits on a tree-lined lot across from what used to be Heath High. Inside, a stone bearing the image of an angel lists the names of the students who died: Nicole Hadley, Jessica James and Kayce Steger. Behind, smaller stones on the wall bear the names of those injured in the shooting.

A memorial to the three girls killed in a school shooting in 1997 is open in West Paducah.

The memorial is where Christina Hadley Ellegood goes after a hard day, or when she’s grieving the loss of her 14-year-old sister Nicole.

“It shows that our community has not forgotten my sister and the other girls who lost their lives and those who were injured,” Christina told CNN.

At the memorial near what is now Heath Middle School, the victims — now adults — can bring their children to explain what happened that day, he said.

“A lot of students had to grow up overnight. You didn’t feel safe going to school. Then you were asking where do I feel safe?” Christina said. “I feel like when we take away something simple like that, it’s going to change a person.”

When Christina, then 15, heard rumblings about a gun on campus, she thought someone had brought a paintball gun to school. He later found his sister on the ground with a gunshot wound to the head.

Shock took over his body.

Nicole Hadley is featured in one of the last photos taken of him.

“I remember thinking I should cry but I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel any emotion,” she said.

Her sister was shot in the lobby after the student prayer circle said “Amen” in front of Missy, who later thought it must be a joke because what looked like firecrackers went off.

But then, standing in front of Nicole, waiting for her to get up, Missy was also shot.

“Suddenly, I heard a ringing in my ears and I started floating on the ground,” he said. “Even the impact of hitting the ground didn’t hurt.”

In and out of consciousness, Missy saw her chemistry teacher holding another girl as another teacher repeated, “She’s not going to make it.”

“I had no clue I was watching Jessica die,” Missy said.

Now, Missy is preparing to face the parole board on Monday as they consider whether to release shooter Michael Carneal. He hopes his wheelchair will serve as a reminder of the scars left after the shooting.
Missy Jenkins looks at a get well card with her twin sister on December 10, 1997.

“The fact that he was the one who made the decision for everyone’s future, but the only one who gets a chance at parole, it’s a little disappointing because everyone else has been sentenced to life on parole. I’m not going to walk again. And the girls they killed are never coming back,” he said.

Carneal’s attorney, Alana Meyer, told CNN in a statement that Carneal has committed to taking medication during his incarceration and plans to continue treatment through therapy and medication management at a mental health facility near his parents’ home if he is released. another town a few hours from Paducah.

Carneal was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while incarcerated at the Department of Juvenile Justice, according to his attorney.

“Over the past 25 years, Michael has demonstrated the ability to change, rehabilitate and mature. Michael has always felt deep remorse and taken responsibility for the shooting. He is committed to improving himself and being a positive force in any way he can,” Meyer said in a statement.

For Christina, the parole hearing could be a life-changing moment for many in the community who may not feel safe if the gun is released. While some believe the shooter has served enough time, he said most he spoke to believed he should remain in prison.

“I think three girls who did nothing wrong were taken, and they don’t get a second chance at life,” she said. “Then why should he?”

Kelly Alsip was also shot that day and still bears a bullet wound scar on his left shoulder as he prepares to face the parole board.

Kelly recalled her daughter crying when she saw a letter in the mail about her upcoming parole case, immediately fearing for her mother.

Missy Jenkins Smith, right, and Kelly Hard Alsip talk to reporters in Louisville, Kentucky, September 11, 2008.

“I get choked up thinking about it because it only affects me,” Kelly said.

Those who were there on the day of the shooting still vividly remember what happened: worried parents running to the school to find their children, students lining up at pay phones to call, and what they were doing before the shooting began. .

Kelly was holding hands with her best friend, Kayce Steger, in the prayer circle before the shots rang out. Kayce was killed.

“I was the last person he talked to,” Kelly said.

Lessons learned and the long road to recovery

Missy was shot by someone she knew, a guy who was in the band with her. Someone he saw as a “class clown,” he never imagined he would commit a school shooting.

But now he knows the signs were there.

“I’d like to think that if she asked for help, or said something, I would have helped her,” she said.

Missy Jenkins Smith with friends in the hallway of Heath High School as a junior.

Carneal had brought a gun to school earlier, and warned that “something big” was going to happen in the prayer circle that morning, Missy said she later found out.

Before the shooting she saw him being bullied and others being bullied in a time when people didn’t talk about bullying.

Missy is now an author and public speaker, and has spent much of her life addressing at-risk youth and lecturing on bullying prevention, a role she took to help stop another act of violence.

Missy Jenkins Smith speaking to a crowd.

“I was hoping that if there was a kid in my school like the one who got shot, if that person needed someone to talk to, a trusted adult, that was my whole reason for getting into it,” Missy said.

Missy believes that Carneal still has to “face the consequences of his actions” but is no longer holding onto his anger.

“They gave me a second chance, I didn’t want to live with that anger,” he said. “I knew anger wouldn’t make me walk again. It wouldn’t bring back the dead girls, and it wouldn’t change what happened that morning.”

Missy Jenkins entered Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky on November 29, 1999, for the first time since she was wounded in the shooting.

Christina and her brother, Andrew Hadley, also faced a long journey dealing with the grief of losing their sister at such a young age. Andrew was 12 and at home when Nicole was killed, and remembers how “everyone was looking at me” when he was later told to go to the office.

He saw blood on the floor of the school and someone being carried away on a stretcher, with officers present. Then he saw his mother and sister crying.

The trauma of that day has stayed with him, turning into anxiety and depression as he struggles to come to terms with the reality that his sister is gone, he said. It was the birth of her daughter, whose second name is Nicole, that helped her heal.

“I feel like I have a new mission in life and purpose in life,” he said.

For shooting survivors, even hearing about the most recent school shootings can be difficult. This year alone, there have been 40 shootings in K-12 schools so far.

“I know the pain they feel,” Christina said. “And often there’s nothing I can do to take it away or help them.”

A Heath High School student at the scene of a school shooting on December 1, 1997.

He had to learn that it was okay to limit his viewing of news about other shootings. But now she takes solace in her connection with other survivors of the Paducah shooting.

“We know we’re going to stop everything we’re doing to help that person because we understand them in a way that no one else does.”

And when another school shooting occurred nearly five years ago in Kentucky, 30 miles from Heath High, Christina said she sprang into action.

A 15-year-old boy opened fire at Marshall County High School in 2018, killing two students and injuring 16 others.

Christina reached out to those affected by the shooting to offer advice and help the community heal after going through her own grueling healing process after losing her sister in a school shooting.

He fought for years to bury the pain and replay what happened in his head. Talking and writing through her emotions has helped her since, she learned.

“I wanted to share what I’ve been through to help them,” she said. “Maybe I’ve tried to give some advice on things I don’t want to do or just advice on things I’ve learned along the way.”