While the song, "I Don't Like Mondays" released by the Boomtown Rats in 1979 has become part of popular culture (including being seen scrawled as graffiti in the movie, The Breakfast Club), the real-life shooting that inspired it still haunts survivors today.
It was on January 29, 1979 at the Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California and a group of children were waiting outside for the principal, Burton Wagg, to open the gates and let them enter. The 53-year-old Wagg had just arrived on the scene when someone began shooting at the school from a nearby house. Eight children were injured and Burton Wagg was killed as he tried to get the children to safety. The school custodian, 56-year-old Michael Suchar was killed as he tried to pull Wagg out of harm's way.
Police quickly arrived but the shooting continued and Constable Robert Robb was shot in the neck. By this time, police had surrounded the family home where the shooter was barricaded but the standoff lasted for seven hours. During this time, some of the remarkable details about the shooter became readily apparent, including the fact that the police were dealing with a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Ann Spencer.
In what appeared to be an attempt at generating some publicity for herself, Spencer spent part of the seven hours barricaded inside the house speaking on the telephone to a journalist covering the story. The journalist had randomly called houses in the neighbourhood trying to get information when he found Spencer who freely admitted that she was doing the shooting. When asked by the journalist why the shooting had occurred, she uttered the soon-to-be-famous line "I don't like Mondays." She also told police negotiators that her victims had been "easy targets" and that she would "come out shooting" if they attempted to break into the house to arrest her.
During the seven-hour negotiation, she made numerous other statements about the shooting that received widespread publicity including, ""There was no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun." She also referred to the children she had nearly killed as "[the children ] looked like a herd of cows standing around, it was really easy pickings." Despite her threats, Spencer eventually surrendered without further violence and was taken into custody. But the question remained: who was Brenda Ann Spencer and what would be done with her?
Born in San Diego on April 3, 1962, she had a longstanding history of behaviour problems which led to being placed in a facility for problem students by the time she became an adolescent. Neighbours would later report that she was frequently truant from school and was known to be involved in drug abuse and petty theft. A poor student, Spencer reportedly had little interest in education and few friends. At 5 ft, 2 in. and unusually thin, at least one classmate would described her as "pretty crummy looking." When questioned afterward, fellow students and teachers all described her as moody and introverted. Teachers often asked her if she was sleeping during class while other students described her as sullen and antisocial.
After her parents separated, Brenda Spencer chose to live with her father although he had difficulty supporting the two of them. Not only did they sleep together on a thin mattress on the floor, but the house would later be found to contain numerous empty bottles of alcohol lying around. Though she had formerly accused her father of physically and sexually abusing her while he had been drinking, she continued to live with him up until the time of the shooting.
By early 1978, she was in a special facility for problem pupils where she was described by staff as being suicidal. That same summer, Spencer was arrested for shooting out the windows of the nearby Cleveland Elementary School with a BB gun as well as for petty theft. Placed on probation, her case worker arranged a psychiatric evaluation which recommended that she be placed in a hospital due to her depression but her father refused to allow it.
In the months leading up to the shooting, she became even more antisocial. Students who knew Spencer would later describe her hatred of police officers and that she had talked about "doing something big to get on TV." She had also made a number of other statements such as , "one of these mornings, you're gonna look for me" and "you don't have to wait very long to see what is going on with me." Nobody would pay attention to these threats until afterward.
In Christmas of that same year, her father gave her a Ruger semiautomatic .22 caliber rifle with five hundred rounds of ammunition. Spencer would later state, "I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun." Whatever her father's intention, she interpreted his gift as a tacit endorsement of her committing suicide. The shooting would occur a month later.
After being taken into custody, Spencer was found to test positive for drugs although there was no indication that she had been drunk or unusually high at the time of the shooting. A psychiatric assessment ruled out the possibility of an insanity defense and she was tried as an adult despite her age. Pleading guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon, she was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of twenty-five years and sent to the California Institution for Women in Chino, California.
Since her incarceration began, Spencer has made numerous applications for parole which have all been denied. Her most recent application was in 2009 and she will not be eligible again until 2019. Over the years, she has repeatedly minimized her own responsibility for the shootings by stressing her history of childhood abuse. She has also insisted that she was on PCP and alcohol when she opened fire and that her attorney and the state conspired to hide her drug test results. Her attorney and the prosecutor have both publicly denied these allegations.
Now in her fifties, Spencer has been largely forgotten due to more recent school shootings that have received far greater media attention. As some commentators have noted, the Cleveland Elementary School shooting is rarely included in timelines of mass school shootings. Whether this is due to the sheer rarity of female school shooters or the comparatively small number of fatalities involved, the parallels between Spencer and other disaffected youths such as Adam Lanza and Elliot Rodger are too obvious to ignore.
More and more, the deadly consequences of combining psychological disturbance and easy access to high-powered weapons are becoming readily apparent. Whether the political fallout of incidents such as these will lead to real change or not depends on political will and a determination not to allow school shootings and similar tragedies to be simply forgotten.
In 1983, San Diego's Cleveland Elementary School was closed due to declining enrolment and a new school was opened on the site. Just a few years later, a second school shooting occurred at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California and many survivors of Brenda Spencer's rampage reported feeling a renewed sense of trauma over the similarities to what they experienced.
As school shootings continue, this is a trauma that far more victims and their families will undergo with time.