On November 8, 2005, tragedy struck a small community when a student attacked three high school principals. This is the story of that unforgettable day at Campbell County High School in East Tennessee.
School Shooting: A True Account
by Zack Walden,
for Advanced Composition, ETSU, December 2009
Author’s Note: Zack Walden was a freshman at Campbell County High School when the following events transpired. He personally knew the perpetrator, the victims, and their families, allowing for this accurate story using firsthand accounts.
Lunch was over, and students were scurrying to their final class of the day at Campbell County High School. They didn’t feel something foreboding. There wasn’t an eerie solemness in the hallways as students walked past each other. Chris Poteet was walking with some of his friends on the basketball team. Zack Walden trotted along with his friend Megan discussing their homework assignment for English. Teachers were chatting with each other as they monitored students in the hall. Everyone was doing everything as they always do. It was another day in the sleepy little East Tennessee town called LaFollette, a typical rural community where everyone was related, Wal-Mart ruled shopping habits, and one main road acted as the town lifeline.
Jim Pierce, a Campbell County High School assistant principal, had just received a report that a student had a weapon on campus. He wasn’t worried. When you’re a principal at a school of 1500 students, reports of students possessing illegal items is an all too common occurrence. The students are always searched, and nothing more than a pack of cigarettes or marijuana is ever found. Nevertheless, he knew protocol. He found Ms. Phillips, the school security guard, patrolling the hallways. Ms. Phillips had no formal training or weapon. She was only present to satisfy a group of parents that insisted that security measures be placed within the school. Mr. Pierce asked her to go to the hallway adjacent to the office and bring Kenny Bartley, a freshman, from Mrs. Castleberry’s class to his office. He then called Mr. Gary Seale, the head principal, to come assist in the situation.
This was not Mr. Seale’s first incident involving Kenny. When Kenny was in sixth grade, Mr. Seale was the principal of LaFollette Middle School. On one occasion, Kenny was called into the office and attempted to stab Mr. Seale with a pencil. Kenny was taken out of school after the incident and taken to Kings Academy in Bean Station, Tennessee—a school that helps troubled children learn self-discipline. Kenny had just reenrolled in the Campbell County School System less than a month ago, despite objections from Kings Academy who insisted he wasn’t ready to be in an uncontrolled setting with other students. However, Dr. Blevins, Campbell County Director of Schools, allowed him to enroll.
Mr. Arnold Jones was teaching his freshman English class, located in the western wing of the vast, single-story building. He did a quick check to see which students had done their homework assignment. He went around the room. Megan Chapman, yes. Zack Walden, yes. Emily Spradlin, yes. Cara Petitt, yes. Chris Poteet, no. Mr. Jones had put up with enough slacking from that boy this year.
“To the office!” Mr. Jones bellowed at Chris. “Don’t come back until you have detention.”
It wasn’t very often that Mr. Jones sent students to the office, especially for something as trivial as a missing homework assignment, but he felt justified for doing so just because of Chris’s smug, superior attitude. He then continued to teach his class, as if nothing were wrong.
Mr. Pierce was in his office, located halfway down the office corridor, with Kenny and Ms. Phillips. Mr. Seale walked in, and Ms. Phillips left. Mr. Bruce, another assistant principal, was walking by Mr. Pierce’s door when the security officer walked out.
“Mr. Bruce, you may want to go in there. They’re searching a student for a gun.”
He smiled and thanked her. Then he walked in the door.
Kenny Bartley was sitting on the opposite side of the desk from the three administrators. He was not anxious in the least—he had previously snorted a Xanax right before the security officer called him out of class. He knew why he was in the office, and he knew what he was going to do about it. The questioning began.
“Kenny, do you have something that you shouldn’t?” asked Mr. Seale.
“No,” was Kenny’s smug reply.
“Well, we were told that you may have something on your body that you shouldn’t have,” countered Mr. Seale.
“You mean like this?” Kenny said as he pulled out a small .22 handgun. It was so small that the principals believed it was a realistic toy.
“Is that gun real, Kenny?” asked Seale.
“I’ll show you if it’s real or not,” growled Kenny.
He then ordered the principals to back up against the wall. Once they were a sufficient distance away, Kenny proceeded to load the gun, showing the men the bullets that would soon traumatize them for life. Once the gun was loaded, Kenny aimed it at Mr. Seale’s head, saying, “I never liked you anyway.”
Mr. Seale realized that his life would probably end at that moment. The gun was fired, but the bullet hit Mr. Seale in the groin. Mr. Seale later recalled that the Lord was the only thing that could’ve kept that bullet from hitting him in the head, as Kenny was only a few feet away. Mr. Bruce lifted his arm in a defensive gesture, and Kenny’s next bullet hit Mr. Bruce under the armpit, penetrating both of his lungs and his heart. Mr. Pierce was shot in the back as he tried to wrestle the gun away from Kenny. The bullet grazed Kenny’s hand before penetrating Mr. Pierce’s lung. Finally, the gun was wrestled away from Kenny.
Chris Poteet came running back to Mr. Jones’s class. He looked panicked.
“Did you get detention?” asked Mr. Jones.
“No. Did you not hear the shots?” Chris replied.
The class began to worriedly murmur.
“The gunshots! I think they got Mr. Pierce,” Chris said. Then the 6’1” basketball player broke down in tears.
“Everyone in the corner!” Mr. Jones said as he secured the door.
Moments later, an intercom announcement confirmed the fears of everyone in the room. It was the shaky voice of a wounded Mr. Seale, “Attention students and teachers: we are now on lockdown.”
Students began calling family and friends, making sure everyone they knew was unaffected by whatever horror had occurred. Cell phone networks jammed, blocking all calls within minutes. Then, prayer returned to school as students in every classroom, and even some teachers, led prayers.
Anyone walking into the front office would have assumed that it was just another hectic day at CCHS. The office staff was reacting perfectly to the situation that was taking place in the confines of the assistant principal’s office, only a few feet away. A secretary was on the phone with 911. Another had just called the JROTC instructors to the office moments before. Mr. Seale was sitting in a chair, bleeding. He had run to put his school in lockdown and make sure students were safe, despite his own personal afflictions. Colonel Salveson and Sergeant Tierney came into the office with 50 feet of rope and took action. They relieved the wounded Mr. Pierce who was holding Kenny to the floor and hog-tied the perpetrator. Sergeant Tierney said, “I’m going to help you up now, but if you try anything I’ll break your fucking neck. Understand?”
Kenny replied, “Yes sir.”
The JROTC instructors then guided Kenny away from the mayhem he had caused in the office to the cafeteria.
Ambulances and police cars rushed into the school entrance. The gates were then secured. Cars of concerned parents were already trying to get into the school after their children had called reporting the incident. Police, assisted by school staff, kept the school secured, still unable to answer the worried parents’ questions.
“Is there a bomb?”
“Is someone hurt?”
“Was it a student? A teacher?”
“I want my child. Please let me have my child!”
Bartley was taken into custody. Mr. Pierce and Mr. Seale were taken by air medical services to the University of Tennessee Hospital. Mr. Pierce had bullets in his back, as well as collapsed lungs. Mr. Seale’s bullet rested near his intestines. Mr. Bruce was taken to a local hospital where he would be pronounced dead on arrival.
Around 4 pm, students and teachers were finally released, most still not knowing the events that transpired. Mr. Seale and Mr. Pierce entered surgery and ultimately recovered. Then, the community grieved the loss of a hero, Ken Bruce, and reached out to support the surviving victims. Seale, Pierce, and the Bruce family were flooded with cards and letters from students and former students showing appreciation for not only their heroic deeds, but the everyday occurrences where these administrators positively affected young lives. Many students took the opportunity to memorialize the closed high school gate with signs, posters, flowers, candles, and pictures.
Mr. Seale displayed a great attitude as he recovered. When he awoke from surgery, he immediately asked for Little Debbie cakes, his personal favorite. He was rewarded with several cases of cakes, courtesy of the Little Debbie company. He continued to thank God for saving his life that day, and showed love towards “Little Kenny,” as Seale called his attacker. Upon his return to school, a celebration was held as students held signs and cheered for Mr. Seale. No matter how many times students complained about his strict policies and his liberal distribution of punishments, CCHS students always remembered the love that Mr. Seale showed for them on that fateful day.
Mr. Pierce lives today because of his years spent running and coaching cross-country. His excellent physical health allowed the nearly sixty-year-old man to endure. The athletes that he dedicated much of his life to inundated him with sympathy and support as he struggled for his life.
Mr. Bruce still lives in the hearts and minds of those who met and loved him. He was always willing to help any student or teacher. He was fond of his eccentric one-liners that no one else could ever come up with: “There’s no use pole-vaulting over mouse turds,” or, “He’s as useless as a screen door on a submarine,” or even, “The effective range of an excuse is zero meters.” His family advocates for school safety and victims’ rights.
Kenny Bartley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and 2 counts of aggravated assault, as well as other miscellaneous charges. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison without parole.