School violence in Red Lion: When bad things happen to good towns
Handprints cover the Red Lion Area Junior High School cafeteria honoring Principal Eugene Segro. For junior high students Josh Campbell, left, and Chad Waltemyer were in the lunchroom in 2003, when classmate Jimmy Sheets shot and killed Principal Eugene Segro. The gunman then himself. This was the worst case of school violence in York County history. Also of interest: School violence struck York County in 1970.
The view of Red Lion’s leadership 25 years ago was that the borough and its surrounding area had escaped highs and lows other town had experienced over history.
Tough moments as flooding, block long fires and economic woes.
Since 2001, three terrible acts of school violence have struck schools in that southeastern York County region.
A York Daily Record/Sunday News series Finding their way out explores the result of that violence today, particularly the shooting of Red Lion’s junior high principal.
Here is my York Sunday News column (4/22/12), which brings the town’s history into the discussion:
The woman was in tears.
She had been sitting in her vehicle trying to decide whether to meet me at a public event in June 2011.
She finally walked inside, pulled me aside and told me her troubling story.
People are still hurting in the Red Lion area, she said, over a student’s killing of a junior high school principal eight years before.
She was in the school at the time, and she was one of those hurting.
You have to bring that to light in the newspaper, she urged, so people can reckon with their feelings and begin a healing process.
The next day, I was discussing the woman’s concern with someone in another public setting. That person also was acquainted with a former Red Lion student, now a young woman, harboring unresolved conflicts about the incident.
As we were talking, yet another former Red Lion student overheard our conversation and joined in.
Back to her in a moment.
* * *
The count: Three troubled souls in two days.
That sparked a renewed newsroom discussion about how the Red Lion community is dealing with the 2003 death of Principal Eugene Segro and assailant James Sheets.
That conversation evolved into the “Finding their way out” project appearing in today’s newspaper on 6A, with more details at ydr.com/rlheals.
Some people have moved on from the three terrible moments that afflicted three different Red Lion Area School District buildings in the past decade: a machete attack at an elementary school, Sheets’ shooting of his junior high school principal and a subsequent student-against-student knife assault at the high school.
Some witnessed one of the three attacks.
Some, all three.
Since those days, it has seemed to me that the Red Lion community has dealt with the trauma by shutting down.
Perhaps it was the administration’s early attitude after the shooting that it was strictly a district and local community issue. And that was that.
Perhaps police fostered that view. To this day, they have not released a comprehensive report of the Segro shooting.
And some of this shutdown stems from the nature of the Red Lion community itself.
Shortly after its founding in 1880, Red Lion scored a hat trick in the transportation game. It enjoyed major highway access, railroad service to Baltimore and trolleys rolling to York.
The lucrative cigar-making trade in this growing market center rose with that transportation system.
Before these days of days of two-income families, Red Lion benefited financially from two-income families.
The husband would work in his trade, and his wife and children would roll cigars.
“The cigar makers of Red Lion,” a 1980 history observed, “represented a thrifty, economically and financially well-situated class of people most of whom owned their own homes, equipped with all the conveniences, their own automobiles, and had fair sized savings accounts.”
The editor of that same centennial history acknowledged Red Lion’s fortunes. The borough has not gone through the floods, droughts, urban decay and economic depressions, he wrote, that other towns have endured.
“I believe that Red Lion,” he wrote, “… has closely represented the kind of America our country’s fathers had in mind when they founded this great nation.”
Twenty years after those words were written came a different America – the post-Columbine attacks in Red Lion’s cherished schools.
All that hard work, planning and accomplishment had not prepared residents for the moment when bad things happen to good towns.
Its residents shut down, and many have yet to open up.
* * *
Now, today’s story is not about revisiting the gory details of what happened inside those schools. Most of those stories have already been pieced together.
And the story isn’t why James Sheets brought three guns and 700 rounds to school that day. That answer regrettably might never be known.
The story is how people in this region of York County are dealing with post traumatic stress disorder and other trauma almost a decade after the attacks.
Some have found their way out.
Others are slowly finding their footing.
Still others are groping for toeholds.
These are pieces of the community reality based on what dozens of former students, families, school staff, trauma experts and police told Bill Landauer and Jason Plotkin, our veteran journalists.
And we know pain persists at various levels because of the number of people who firmly closed their doors on us, or opened them and then slowly shut them or huddled inside without answering the doorbell.
Our hope is that by putting out there how intensely the community remains afflicted, people can find healthy ways to cope.
And our goal has been that by telling the story of hope – some have successfully dealt with their demons and moved on – some measure of healing can occur.
Clearly, the current Red Lion Area School District administration’s OK for staff members to talk about their pain – and hope – is a good sign.
Such conversations around the community are crucial today.
Young people, now in their 20s, and district staff, who experienced those attacks, must know that other people are healing or hurting.
* * *
Which brings us back to the third woman from those June 2011 conversations – the one who overheard our discussion on pain in Red Lion.
She later declined to talk to our reporters, but I still remember what she told me in that initial exchange: Every night before she climbs into bed, she looks under it.
Our hope is that she reads “Finding their way out” and finds her way out.
This artwork, from the hands of a substitute teacher, tells about the day of the shooting that killed the principal and a student there.
Also of interest:
Red Lion – Retooling from making things to providing services
YDR opinion: Red Lion suffers in silence
Bataan survivor from Red Lion persevered as POW and Kaltreider Library draws name from noted Red Lion cigarmaker and Red Lion’s Ebert Furniture: From bedroom suites to gunstocks
Photo courtesy York Daily Record/Sunday News