In 1983, Michael Grassie was a Marine stationed in Beirut when terrorists bombed his barracks. Badly injured, he returned to the United States with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star and took a job at a pulley factory. There, a work accident cost him the fingers on his right hand. That's when Grassie figured he'd better go looking for a less hazardous profession. He got his teaching degree and three years later landed a coveted position at the SuccessTech Academy, a lauded magnet school in Cleveland. Last Wednesday afternoon, he had just finished teaching a social-studies class when he heard a loud popping sound and saw kids running, terrified, down the hallway. The next thing he knew, 14-year-old Asa Coon, a student in his world-history class, was standing in his classroom. Coon was holding a handgun and mumbling something. "Then he shot me," said Grassie. "And I have no idea why."
From his hospital bed at MetroHealth Medical Center, where he is recovering from the damage the bullet did to his pancreas and spleen, Grassie told NEWSWEEK that he was "not shocked" Coon had gone on a shooting spree, wounding another teacher and two students before killing himself. "It was obvious from day one that he was troubled," he said.
Coon wasn't one of those quietly suffering kids who inexplicably "fall through the cracks." Nearly everyone who came in contact with him recognized that he was in serious need of help. Raised by a single mother, at one point he lived in a house filled with garbage, according to government records. When he was 7 years old, social workers who saw the boy found his arms covered in fleabites. His violent older brother was in and out of prison, and Asa himself was brought up on juvenile charges last year when he punched his mother in the eye. Though Coon was a good student who won a citywide chess tournament last year, he was also socially awkward and a target of ridicule. He threatened other students, and days before the shootings was disciplined for a fistfight.
It was all too easy for a 14-year-old to get his hands on a gun. Last week alone, three other kids in schools around Cleveland were caught with firearms, including a special-education student who had a semiautomatic rifle in a duffel bag. He told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that he didn't know how it got there. "Let's get real about this: the problem is guns," says Dr. Jeffrey Claridge, the trauma surgeon who operated on Grassie. "If he had a knife, he wouldn't have been able to do the damage he did so quickly."
Grassie, who believes the system (himself included) let Coon down, says that some teachers at SuccessTech wanted to send the boy to another school so "some other teachers, some other students would have to deal with him. That wouldn't have helped the schools, the other students or this young man."