Survivor's tale: Heath High School shooting survivor discusses consequences of gun violence, bullying

Missy Jenkins Smith worked with Dr. Scott Winkler during a physical therapy session at Physical Medical Services in Murray on July 30. Jenkins Smith was paralyzed from the chest down in the 1997 Heath High School shootings that killed three of her classmates.
Missy Jenkins Smith worked with Dr. Scott Winkler during a physical therapy session at Physical Medical Services in Murray on July 30. Jenkins Smith was paralyzed from the chest down in the 1997 Heath High School shootings that killed three of her classmates. Herald-Leader

Twin sisters Missy and Mandy Jenkins were turning 16 in a few short weeks.

They were running late for school, and Missy didn't have time to hug and kiss her parents before hopping into a friend's car.

"I just yelled 'bye' and ran out the door," Missy said, thinking back to the morning of Dec. 1, 1997.

Nearly 17 years later, Missy would walk across a stage in Louisville and tell Kentucky school administrators about a moment that would leave her paralyzed. In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Missy Jenkins Smith discussed how her life was changed by the events of that winter day.

On Dec. 1, the twins were on their way to a prayer circle in the lobby of Heath High School in Paducah. They said amen, picked up their backpacks and talked to their classmates about the everyday concerns of high school life.

Then, there were gunshots.

[Related story: Tragedy never far from our thoughts at Heath High School]

Within minutes of arriving at the McCracken County school, Missy was fighting for her life on the lobby floor as Mandy lay over her for protection. Mandy was chilled by the feeling of a bullet flying through her hair. It left a light red streak on her scalp.

In shock and horrified by what she witnessed, Mandy left the Heath lobby. On an old gym payphone, Mandy called her parents and explained that Michael Carneal, then 14, took a gun to school.

Missy's algebra teacher prayed over her as chaos erupted in the school's lobby. Missy drifted in and out of consciousness, but she remembers teachers holding their students, begging for them to live.

Missy was one of five students injured after Carneal fired at the prayer circle students formed each morning. Three girls died that day.

The bullet, which entered Missy's left shoulder and exited her lower back, didn't pierce a single organ, but it did graze her spinal cord and left her paralyzed from her chest down. Missy was told she might never walk again and could be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

"I consider myself blessed; I could've died that morning, and I'm still here," Missy told the Herald-Leader. "I don't need to waste what I have."

Now, Missy tells the story of what happened to her at Heath and how she overcame the tragedy. She also wrote a book, I Choose to be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor's Triumph Over Tragedy, which was published in 2008.

That day in December was one of the hardest moments of Mandy's life, but a close second was watching Missy sit up for the first time since the shooting.

"God only gives us what we can handle," Mandy said. "I knew I could handle the mental part of the shooting while Missy could handle the physical."

Channeling her fears

Missy arrived in Lexington just weeks after the shooting to start her physical therapy at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital. Tracy Martin, Missy's physical therapist, still works at Cardinal Hill. Today, Missy goes to Scott Winkler in Murray.

When she arrived in Lexington, Missy was in spinal shock — her body shut down from the trauma she experienced. Missy's muscles were weakening, and "things that were pretty normal weren't so normal anymore" for Missy, Martin said.

The 16-year-old was told she would have to relearn all basic physical movements.

"She channeled her fears and frustrations into something positive for herself and other people," Martin said. "She couldn't change it and take it back. No one can take that gun away."

When Missy walked across the stage at the Galt House in Louisville last month, it wasn't the first time she'd taken a step since the shooting.

In 2000, Missy walked to the podium, bearing heavy equipment holding her up at the Democratic National Convention. She endorsed Al Gore for his position on gun violence and told her story. She also stood at some of the most important moments in her life: Heath prom, high school graduation and her wedding.

Missy was happy to walk in Louisville, but she was more excited to talk to the teachers and administrators charged with keeping children safe in schools.

"If I don't walk, I know I will in heaven," Missy said. "From a wheelchair I can still do this."

A tragic trend

Lu Young — who was an assistant principal at East Jessamine High when the Heath High School shooting occurred — heard Missy speak and watched her walk across the stage at the Kentucky Association of School Administrators conference.

Young, president of KASA and the chief academic officer for Fayette County Schools, recalled how the Heath shooting changed things in schools.

Two years after the Heath tragedy made national headlines, 13 students were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Between the two incidents, there were seven school shootings and 15 fatalities.

"I remember (the Heath shooting) and Columbine really shook all of us as school leaders to the core," Young said. "It showed how tragic and unthinkable school shootings could be."

There have been 137 fatal school shootings at elementary, middle and high schools and colleges from 1980-2012, according to a study conducted by Slate.

Although schools are still statistically safe places for children, Young said practices and safety measures were put into place after the Heath shooting.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a national advocacy group that fights gun violence, reports there have been 74 instances of a firearm being discharged on school property since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Michael Carneal, the convicted shooter at Heath, is currently in the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. Carneal, now 31, was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 years, in 2023. He signed a waiver several years ago to prevent the media from contacting him.

Repeatedly, Carneal has claimed the court shouldn't have accepted his guilty plea in 1998, and that he should have been certified as mentally ill before his plea. His allegations were denied by the Kentucky Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court as recently as March.

"He was making such a grown-up decision at even 14," Mandy said. "I don't know, but I think that adult decision has adult consequences. I think he needs to finish his sentence and take the hand he was dealt, because my sister will never walk again."

Missy and Mandy visited Carneal in La Grange when both women were pregnant with their first boys. The women had known Carneal as kids — they were in classes together, and band. Carneal's parents visited Missy in the hospital.

"He told us he was sorry," Mandy said. "We made sure he knew we forgave him."

Mandy compares her sister today to Superwoman as Missy speaks and raises her two kids.

Missy recently quit her job as a counselor at the Calloway County Schools Day Treatment Center to focus on her speaking career. For 10 years, Missy talked to at-risk middle and high school students referred by the school.

"If there was someone like Michael who was going through problems, I wanted to be a person for them to talk to," Missy said.

Missy met her husband and support system, Josh Smith, in 2003 at Murray State. Smith asked Missy to marry him on Christmas Eve in 2004.

The P.E. teacher, middle school football coach and part-time farmer said Missy tends to make ordinary things extraordinary.

"(The shooting) changed the way Missy had to live her life," Smith said. "As far as her ability to accomplish goals, she doesn't let it get in the way."

Missy's two sons, ages 6 and 4, will start playing soccer soon. She and her husband will juggle school, work, soccer practices and many other family obligations.

Mandy admires her sister for the hard work she puts into raising her kids and trying to help others understand the consequences of gun violence and bullying.

"Although Missy hasn't limited herself, I just feel so bad that she can't do absolutely everything with her sons."

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