Did Kayla Have To Die?

The father knew it even before he was told. When a fellow inmate informed Dedric Darnell Owens that there had been a shooting at his son's school, "a cold, sickening feeling came over me," Owens later told the local county sheriff, Bob Pickell. "I knew it was my son that did the shooting," said Owens, who was in jail for violating probation after serving a two-year sentence on cocaine and burglary charges. Sheriff Pickell asked Owens, how could he be so certain? "Because of his past violent acts," answered Owens, according to Pickell. The first grader had already been suspended from school three times for fighting, once for jabbing another kid with a pencil. In between jail terms, Owens had asked his son why he fought other kids. "Because I hate them," the boy answered. Owens said his son spent his time "watching violent movies and TV." The boy's mother seems to have been otherwise engaged. The authorities tried to step in. The boy was scheduled to begin therapy with a counselor for "anger management" in a week or two.

It was too late. The 6-year-old boy settled a schoolyard score last week by taking a .32 semiautomatic and shooting his first-grade classmate, Kayla Rolland, age 6, in the chest. As she lay bleeding to death on the floor of the classroom, the boy did not seem to understand what he had just done. It's never easy to know the mind of a 6-year-old, but the shooter's must have flickered with demons, a jumble of dark images from fantasy and real life unrestrained by conventional morality. He was the product of an environment and family that the word dysfunctional does not begin to capture.

Even measured against the grotesque history of school shootings, the killing of little Kayla, who was known as "Kay Kay" and liked to ride a pink-wheeled bike and watch "Barney," was horrifying. (The prior youngest-ever school killer was a 10-year-old.) Kayla's death left parents everywhere wondering how children learn from right and wrong--and worrying anew about how to keep their own kids out of the line of fire (sidebar, "Learning Right From Wrong"). President Clinton called for a "summit meeting" of congressional leaders this week to discuss tighter gun-control laws, like a measure requiring gun dealers to sell weapons with trigger locks. Will the school shooting, plus yet another random spree in Pennsylvania last week (by an angry tenant who killed an apartment maintenance man and two strangers at fast-food restaurants), push the debate over the too-easy availability of guns toward some concrete laws and voluntary safeguards? The shooter in Michigan is so young that he will not be charged with a crime, but Kayla's murder will undoubtedly be a source of blame and recrimination for months to come.

The search for answers should start with the boy's sordid home life. For the shooter, home was a shabby two-bedroom house at 1103 Juliah Street in gritty Mt. Morris Township, near Flint, Mich. Vodka bottles and car parts littered the yard. Strangers wandered in and out at all hours of the night--to buy, sell and use crack cocaine, police suspect. A blown-out window is covered with a blue tarp. "In the last month we've been hearing gunshots at midnight and 1 a.m.," said Willard Oscar, 36, a short-order cook who lives next door, as he loaded his car to move his family away. "It's the worst house in the neighborhood."

The boy lived there with his uncle, Sir Marcus Winfrey, 21, and another man, Jamelle James, 19. The boy slept, when he could, on a couch in the living room. His mother, Tamarla, left him and his 8-year-old brother in his uncle's keeping a couple of weeks ago after she had been evicted from her own house nearby. "They trashed that house," said neighbor Lori Lafond. "The parents were always in the yard cussing and fighting and drinking."

The sign over the door at the boy's school, Buell Elementary, reads "We ª our children and we care for their safety." The drug dealers were so thick outside that at one point last year extra police had to be brought in to clear a path for children walking home from school. "There's a lot of gangs and a lot of drugs in this neighborhood now," says Mike Hogle, 55, a retired GM worker. "When I grew up here, the neighborhood had a lot of working families. Now it's people on welfare."

Kayla Rolland's family is an exception to the rule. Kayla's mother, Veronica McQueen, rises early to go to her job at an auto-supply factory. Her stepfather, Michael McQueen, got Kayla and her brother and sister ready for school each morning. Kayla was a bright student who excelled at reading. "She was a little tomboy," says family friend Yvonne Young. "She really didn't care for Barbies. She'd never wear a dress. She was just so full of life. We always told her that she was going to be the first woman president."

On the day before she died, Kayla and the boy who shot her exchanged words, and he says she slapped him. He wanted to get even by scaring Kayla--not killing her, he later told police. So he went home and found a gun. He didn't have to look very hard. He had seen his uncle's friend Jamelle twirling a pistol around his finger, investigators say the boy told them. The weapon was a cheap .32-caliber semiautomatic. The boy found the weapon under a pile of blankets in the bedroom and hid it. The next morning he stuffed the gun, loaded with three bullets, in his trousers and walked the two blocks to school. He neglected to bring with him his "Daily Progress Report." Students are supposed to bring the form, signed by a parent or guardian, back to school each day. Police later found the boy's progress report, unsigned, sitting on top of the television set.

As his fellow first graders lined up in the hallway to head to computer class just before 10 a.m., he waited in the classroom with a few others, including Kayla. She had dressed that morning in her favorite blue jeans, a flowered shirt and pink boots, and pulled her shoulder-length hair into a purple "scrunchy." When their teacher, Alicia Judd, went out into the hall to settle the children, the boy pulled out the gun, swung it toward two other girls and finally leveled it at Kayla. "I don't like you," he said, and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through Kayla's chest, piercing her heart. She slumped to the floor next to her desk. "There was a splash of blood all over the floor and she said, 'I'm dying'," her classmate Haili Durbin, 6, told NEWSWEEK. "Then Kayla didn't talk anymore. She had her eyes closed."

When the shot rang out, Miss Judd ran back into her classroom and frantically called 911 on her cell phone. Kayla was bleeding profusely when the paramedics arrived. At the hospital, her mother, Veronica, rushed in from work, expecting a broken arm or some schoolyard injury. Told that Kayla had passed away, she threw herself against the wall and shrieked, "Where's my baby?" Led into the trauma room to see the body, dressed in a white hospital gown trimmed with teddy bears, she broke down again, hugging the dead child and begging, "Please wake up."

After he shot Kayla, the boy put the gun in his desk and ran into the hallway, where he was caught by school officials. Taken to the police station, the boy shooter casually told his story to investigators, apparently showing little remorse. "I don't think he understood that pulling the trigger kills," said Genesee County prosecutor Arthur Busch. "He appeared to take this as, 'Well, this just kinda happens on television'." After his interrogation, the boy sat in his chair, drawing pictures (police did not say of what). Because a judge is unlikely to find that the boy had the requisite criminal "intent" to be charged with the shooting, the authorities had to look elsewhere to appoint blame. A police raid on his uncle's house on Juliah Street turned up a stolen 12-gauge shotgun and some crack cocaine. The pistol used in the shooting was also stolen; police believe that the gun probably came into the house as payment for drugs. On Thursday, police arrested Jamelle James and charged him with involuntary manslaughter for providing the boy with the gun. He pleaded not guilty. The boy's mother, Tamarla, was accused of neglect because, according to the authorities, she knew "marijuana was being smoked daily" in her brother's house.

Haunted by the shooting, some children don't want to revisit the scene of the crime. "My son is scared to death to go back to school," says Lori Lafond. "He's just terrified. He says, 'Mom, what if it happens to me?' I don't know what to tell him." School authorities are unsure what to do. There is talk of metal detectors and sealing up Room 6, where the shooting took place.

Inevitably, the lawyers arrived on the scene. Representing Kayla's mother, Veronica McQueen, J. Dallas Winegarden Jr. announced that the family was "devastated" by the tragedy. Kayla's biological father, Ricky Rolland, hired Geoffrey Fieger, who represented Dr. Jack Kevorkian as well as Nathaniel Abraham, a 13-year-old tried for murder as an adult in Michigan. Fieger said he would begin an investigation "not just to sue someone" but because, he said, "I'm interested in social justice."

Conceivably, the boy could be back at Buell Elementary before the end of the year. Because he is so young, school rules only allow for a maximum suspension of 80 days. That may be too soon for his classmates and their parents, who are sure to protest. Last weekend thousands of mourners said goodbye to little Kayla, as she lay in her tiny white coffin in her blue jeans, surrounded by teddy bears. The boy's future is uncertain, to say the least. He is temporarily in the custody of his aunt, while the court system decides on whether he can be reunited with either parent. More likely, he will enter a maze of social services faced with the difficult task of turning a casual killer back into a little boy.