Cover Story

Murder in the 1st

Shocking 1st-grade classroom slaying of Kayla Rolland, 6: a family's tragedy and a nation's shame

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

In Mt. Morris Township, Mich., where a first-grader murdered a classmate last week, the stage seemed set for violence. The shooter, 6, lived with his uncle in a flophouse where thugs and junkies drifted in and out. The boy's father is in jail on a parole violation related to a burglary rap. The gun the boy used to shoot 6 year-old Kayla Rolland was stolen. His teacher told reporters the boy was "aggressive." A classmate called him "a bully." His father told police the boy enjoyed violent movies and fought with classmates because he hated them.

In a neighborhood marred by crime, residents were not surprised when sirens screamed toward Buell Elementary School. They were shocked only by the shooter's age.

Yet, despite overwhelming evidence that the shooting was incubated in a soul-sick environment of drugs and violence, politicians and activists quickly distilled the death of a first-grader into a forum on gun control.

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Within hours of the shooting, President Clinton blamed Congress. Mr. Clinton's assessment of a shooting committed in a drug-infested neighborhood with a stolen handgun containing three bullets: "I'm still waiting for Congress to close the gun show loophole ... to stop importation of these large capacity ammunition clips and to require child safety locks on guns." He also wondered aloud why the first-grader's gun-which the boy reportedly found in the flophouse under a pile of dirty blankets after it was left there by criminals-wasn't itself secured with a child safety lock.

The gun-control blame game also played out on the state level. Michigan law already bans guns in schools and allows locker searches. At least 659 students have been expelled from school under a 1995 state law covering weapons on school grounds. But state representative Vera Rison, a Democrat whose district includes Buell Elementary, used the incident to lash out at the GOP: "When is the Republican leadership in the legislature going to hear the cries of parents from across our state who are concerned about keeping guns out of the hands of children, and out of the hallways of our schools?"

Such rhetoric, says political science professor William Allen, is a misguided attempt to sidestep personal responsibility and the wages of a culture locked in moral free-fall. "When you have 6-year-olds shooting 6-year-olds, you're not talking about crimes anymore, you're talking about moral decay," says Mr. Allen, who teaches at Michigan State University, which is about an hour's drive from Buell Elementary. "What we're seeing here is a society at its wit's end. [Public officials] go immediately to increasing gun control because they don't have any other answers, and certainly can't take any responsibility."

Mr. Allen believes the U.S. school violence epidemic is rooted in a culture that has mortgaged the value of human life: "A single message is getting through: Children are not valuable. That message is trickling all the way down to the youngest members of society."

San Diego minister Larry Warner agrees. During five years patrolling urban Los Angeles County as a deputy sheriff, Mr. Warner says he saw daily evidence of lonely, frustrated kids using guns to make themselves feel whole and powerful. But he also points out that, as in the case of the Columbine shooters, familial disenfranchisement visits homes all along the socioeconomic ladder: "It traces back to the family unit. These [L.A. kids] were without supervision, living in an atmosphere without unconditional love, without boundaries, without security. A gun is a way of saying, 'I have power. You have to listen to me.'"

No one, apparently, had been listening much to the boy who killed Kayla Rolland, a vivacious, church-loving first-grader whom relatives described as "fearless." Her killer had been suspended from school at least twice, once for fighting and once for stabbing a girl with a pencil. After his mother was evicted from her apartment, he had moved into the rundown drug-house with his uncle and 8-year-old brother. Witnesses say drugs and weapons flowed through the house in a constant stream. Stained, tattered curtains flapped behind broken windows patched with garbage bags. Mud-caked trash surrounded the ramshackle one-story house where a rusting Camaro sat on blocks in the front yard.

After a playground spat Monday, Feb. 28, the boy evidently decided Kayla wasn't listening well enough. Before heading for school on Tuesday, he tucked a .32 caliber semi-automatic pistol in his pants. At about 10 a.m., after most of his classmates had lined up in the hallway to head for the library, the boy pulled out the gun and aimed it at Kayla.

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