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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Just a routine school shooting

T.J. Solomon's violent rampage seemed to be a cry for help. Was it also a signal that Columbine was just the beginning?

By John Cloud

May 24, 1999
Web posted at: 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT)

TIME magazine

Thomas Solomon JR. is no monster. If he was trying to mimic the other school terrorists who came before him, he did a poor job. He had access to high-caliber weapons in his stepfather's gun cabinet, yet he chose a low-powered .22 rifle to shoot up his high school. He was a practiced shot, yet he aimed low. He was literally a Boy Scout, a pleasant 15-year-old kid who went to church and didn't care for Goth life or Marilyn Manson or Duke Nukem or any of the other cultural markers we have come to expect from our kid killers.

Thanks to the halfheartedness of Solomon's melee, Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., was not "another Littleton." No one died in Conyers, and thankfully only six students were injured. All are expected to recover fully. But if it was less bloody, the latest shooting was equally frightening in another way: coming a month to the day after the massacre at Columbine High, it hinted that school violence might now become...routine.

Just as drive-by shootings and other youth violence became a quotidian feature of inner-city life in the 1980s, the episode in Conyers suggested that we may have crossed a threshold at the close of the 1990s. We have suspected for some time that our young people suffer more depression and other mental illness than any previous generation. Perhaps we are now seeing the proof--and the long-term results.

Classmates say Solomon, whom most people call T.J., came to school on Thursday morning bearing the weight of a break-up with his girlfriend and wearing a determined stare. Stacey Singleton, a junior at Heritage, calls it a "hate look," scary enough that when she spotted Solomon and his rifle as he entered the school, she tried to melt into a phone stall she was using. "I just gripped the phone and knew that something really, really bad was going to start," she says.

Heritage students thought the first shots from Solomon's rifle were firecrackers, just like the ones used in last year's senior prank. Solomon maintained a dazed expression as he began randomly firing into the school's indoor commons. "He wasn't aiming," says junior Ryan Rosa, one of his victims. "He was holding it down low ... He was not chasing people." In other words, Solomon went about his work almost reluctantly, shooting literally from the hip with a pump-action sport gun.

Since the Littleton shootings, Rosa had thought about what he would do if something similar happened at his school. "I thought I'd be a hero--tackle the gunman and wrestle him down," he said. In the event, though, "what I did was run." Rosa was still wondering whether T.J. was using a cap gun when he felt a sting in his leg. He joined the fleeing crowd, ending up in a science lab with other students for several very long minutes.

Solomon's shooting ended quickly. Typically, the rifle model he used can fire about a dozen rounds without reloading, and students say he fired about that many shots. They discovered evidence in the boy's bedroom showing he had contemplated the devastation: printouts of bomb recipes, notes on where to plant explosives at the school and rantings about his despair. Solomon wounded six students in all, only one seriously: sophomore Stephanie Laster, who had just stood up from a cafeteria table where she was chatting with a teacher and a girlfriend about a missionary trip she was planning for next month.

Solomon was firing so low that the bullet that entered Laster's backside may have actually ricocheted off the floor. She was hurled into her friend, and both sprawled to the floor. "I think I've been shot," Stephanie told the teacher when she got up. She put her hand on her buttocks, saw the blood and fainted.

By this time, Solomon had backed out the door he had entered. His rifle abandoned, he was kneeling on the ground. He pulled out another gun, a powerful .357 magnum revolver, and put the barrel in his mouth. "It's going to be all right," a voice said. "Put it down." Something about the voice must have calmed the boy. He took the gun from his mouth. The voice belonged to assistant principal Cecil Brinkley, into whose arms T.J. then collapsed, shaking. "Oh, my God, I'm so scared," T.J. said.

Rosa had made his way to the school's resource officer. The boy used a cell phone to call his mom. "You need to come here to school," he told her, bringing to life any parent's nightmare. "I've been shot." By the time his mother and stepfather reached the school, Ryan was at the hospital emergency room. His injuries weren't serious, and he was released within hours, though at least for now he will carry the bullet in his leg.

A helicopter took Laster to another hospital, where she arrived in critical condition. The bullet had lodged in her abdomen, and surgeons had to repair her intestines. But the operation went well, and Stephanie will probably be home within days. By Friday she was able to talk with friends and family, folks so bighearted they sat around her hospital bed and said how awful they feel for T.J. Solomon.

We'd like to believe that no boys are truly evil, and if Eric Harris tested that proposition at Littleton exactly a month before Conyers, T.J. did not. Within hours, Rosa was struggling to explain Solomon's crime against him. "He'd be the last person I'd think would do something like this," Ryan told TIME after he was released from the emergency room. "He was normal. Just like me."

Solomon lives in a four-bedroom, $275,000 home in a subdivision full of AT&T and IBM executives. His stepdad, Robert Daniele, is a trucking-company executive who likes to hunt; his mom, Mae Dean, is a secretary. The family moved to the well-kept neighborhood with Georgian homes for the space--their house sits on a one-acre plot--and the schools. Heritage is regarded as one of the best in the area.

Only an outline had emerged by week's end to explain Solomon's feeble rampage. T.J. was taking Ritalin, which is usually prescribed for hyperactivity. A friend of the family said that his grades had been falling during the past year and that he had been medically treated for depression.

Some of the boy's acquaintances spoke of T.J.'s resentment of Jason Cheek, a popular boy two years older who had lettered in three sports. Cheek had teased Solomon, they said, but it was unclear if the linebacker was a primary target. Cheek, who was shot twice in the leg, was healthy enough Friday to deny taunting Solomon and to joke that the bullet still stuck near his groin would set off the metal detectors he was sure the school would install.

"I'm friends with Jason, but he can be an a______," says Rosa. "He really picked on T.J. just because T.J. was so quiet," says another friend of Solomon's. "You know, like being quiet made him weird in the eyes of that little clique of theirs." Solomon took the teasing hard, and even though he had friends, he seemed to become convinced that he was destined to be the campus pariah--"and that idea kept building inside him until he picked up a gun," says Stacey Singleton.

To make matters much worse, the kids say, Solomon believed his girlfriend had recently turned her charms on Jason, of all people. T.J. and the girl had bickered recently, and he, at least, thought the relationship had ended. (Her friends say she denies they had broken up.) Solomon had become increasingly disinterested in school, and the day before the shootings, he got in a fiery argument with two classmates during fourth-period study hall; it ended when Solomon said he would "blow up this classroom." That same day, T.J. told a buddy he had no reason to live.

Littleton produced a national conversation about warning signs, but Solomon's friends must not have been part of that conversation. When asked why no one told a teacher or the principal that T.J. recently threatened to bomb a classroom, the students shrug and look away, dragging on their cigarettes. The look on their face is not of shock or horror, but a numb roll of the eyes, as if they've already begun to see the shooting as some sort of campus ritual, akin to the nuclear-attack drills of the 1950s. Asked why he thought students were resorting to gun violence again and again, Michael Woods, a friend of Cheek's, says, "Kids like T.J. are seeing it and hearing about it all the time now. It's like the new way out for them."

Indeed, at times in Conyers last week there was a sense that the violence had been wrung dry of any emotion. The father of two boys who live near the Solomon home also simply shrugged. Al Morgan won't pull his kids from Heritage, and he doesn't think metal detectors will keep determined murderers out. "It's like winning the lottery," Morgan says of the odds that your kid's school will be next. At a nearby middle school Thursday night, a couple of hundred parents brought students to pick up awards certificates, but only 40 or so remained for a school board meeting. And just one rose to suggest a parent volunteer project to combat violence. No one said much in response.

Of course, not everyone reacted with such flinty nonchalance. Some students said they wouldn't return to Heritage for the final days of the school year, and others say they never want to come back. One girl says she will drop out entirely to begin home schooling. "It's not worth going to school to get shot," says Krystal Graham, 16. It's almost as if Littleton taught us nothing about how to understand the individual traumas that drive certain boys to solve their problems with rifles.

"I think they should do the psychological stuff on him," Ryan Rosa says, speaking of mental health as if it were a surgical procedure that Solomon could undergo that would make things right. When T.J. told his friend Nathaniel Deeter on Wednesday that he was thinking of killing himself, Deeter told him "he was crazy," according to the New York Times. "I mean, a lot of kids say stuff like that."

A lot of kids say stuff like that? Yes, they do, and we're not listening very well. Most public schools spend little effort evaluating the mental health of their students, even though every student gets inoculated against measles. Meantime, says James Garbarino, author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, "the number of kids who need help has shot up significantly." In California there's only one counselor--to say nothing of a trained psychologist--for every 1,000 students.

Some parents, even when they try to pay attention, may not be hearing. Betty Ford--no, not that one--is president of the Parent Teachers Association in a Westchester, Calif., middle school and works hard to catch cues of brewing trouble. Last week, she says, she made a special effort to tune in to her 14-year-old, Adam, as he told her about a recent paint-ball game. "I didn't give a rat's a__," she admits, "but I listened."

There is surely some connection between the fact that parents spend 40% less time with their kids now than 30 years ago, and the violence that some of them commit. We are paying for our prosperity in ways difficult to quantify. Inner cities have actually learned better how to prevent violence at schools, if only out of fear. The Los Angeles school district hasn't had to deal with a serious shooting incident since 1984. In the entire city of San Francisco, which has half a dozen programs designed to identify students early who may be prone to violence, only two kids brought guns to school last year. But those lessons were learned hard. Joy Turner, whose 19-year-old son was gunned down in inner-city Los Angeles, now spends free time working with young killers to help them understand what they have done to their victims' families. Says she: "What's been real for those of us in the inner city is now real in the suburbs. Violence is like a movie: it's coming to a theater near you."

And vigilance is finally creeping into the suburbs. A frightening plot against a school was halted earlier this month in Port Huron, Mich., where authorities say a 12-year-old, a 13-year-old and two 14-year-olds, all boys, had been concocting a conspiracy to outdo Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The Michigan boys planned to take a gun from one of their fathers, use it to hold up a gun store for more weaponry, and then descend on Holland Woods Middle School to rape some of the girls and shoot many classmates. They had drawn up a list of 154 targets and stolen a building plan from the custodian's office.

The plan seems too cartoonish to have become reality, and the boys were probably too young to pull it off. Anything seems possible after Columbine, but should it? The Port Huron boys were all caught within a day of a classmate's report to an assistant principal.

It's hard to imagine that most schools won't become at least as careful as Holland Woods. The debate America had last month over whether metal detectors and sniffing dogs are effective is now virtually irrelevant: expect them in a school near you, starting this September.

But a neighbor of T.J. Solomon's in Conyers may have a better idea. The father of a 10-year-old, he lives just a few houses away and didn't want his name used in the media frenzy. He came home from work early Thursday after he heard about the shootings so he could talk with his son. As they played basketball together, the man promised himself to be more neighborly and more involved in the lives of other families. "When my own son becomes a teenager," he said, "I want him to have more angels around him than T.J. apparently had."

--Reported by Harriet Barovick/ New York, Cathy Booth/Los Angeles, Wendy Cole/ Chicago, Sylvester Monroe, David Nordan, Tim Padgett and Tim Roche/Conyers and Ron Stodghill II/Port Huron

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: May 31, 1999

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