A tragedy in Sparks
Northern Nevada gets blindsided by sudden gun violence and death in one of our schools
The world may never know Jose Reyes’ final thoughts: Why the preteen fatally shot math teacher Michael Landsberry on Oct. 21 at Sparks Middle School, for one, or what compelled him to open fire on a pair of students, both of whom were lucky to survive. After all, their assailant—who brought the 9 mm handgun from home—took his own life, too.
“The poor young man kind of looked like a zombie walking,” said social studies teacher Dave Clark, whose classroom adjoined Landsberry’s. The three-time Iraq War veteran says he’d “never been more terrified than I was that Monday morning,” when the sound of gunfire filled his beloved workplace, and the smell of gunpowder hit his nose. He peeked from a window to see children huddled in fear as Landsberry, his close friend and Air National Guard comrade, lay dead on the basketball court.
Reyes, who’d also shot a male student by then, continued walking, and Clark soon heard him try in vain to open a nearby door. A third gunshot rang out a moment later—this time for another boy.
“Then he walked across the playground,” Clark recalled, “and he shot himself, right near Mike Landsberry.”
An eighth-grader who witnessed the attacks sounds at once meek and tough when he describes what happened.
“I see everyone running, and my teacher just falling,” he said. “They were opening the doors and there were so many kids crying, just in panic mode. My friend was hysterical. I had to calm her down.”
Trauma surgeon Jim Harris said Renown Regional Medical Center got exaggerated reports of the shooting at first, and that his staff geared up to treat as many as a dozen victims.
“We heard there could be as many as six to 12 [emergency patients] initially coming in,” he said, “and that the shooting was still active, and the scene was not under control.”
But thankfully, it was.
Because of the school’s security system, Reyes never made his way inside the building.
And though Sparks Middle and other Washoe County campuses are patrolled by the district’s own police force, officers weren’t present during the shooting, which happened before the first bell and lasted just a few minutes.
The school’s 600 or so students quickly evacuated to Agnes Risley, an adjacent elementary campus.
“I saw my teacher’s body on the blacktop then,” the eighth-grader said. “And that’s when I started crying.”
Students were eventually boarded on buses so they could be reunited with their families at Sparks High School.
Landsberry, for his part, had calmly tried to stop Reyes, who put a bullet in the teacher’s chest as the two walked toward one another.
Police believe that act of heroism held the shooter’s attention long enough for others to find safety.
“Because that teacher was shot,” said Lisa Gardner, a witness’s parent and neighbor to the school, “my son was able to run away.” In fact, Andrew turned and fled all the way home as soon as the mayhem began, saving himself from both the danger and the sight of a killer on campus.Who was Jose Reyes?
The surviving victims' families have stated publicly that they don't believe their sons (who are both recovering well from shoulder and abdominal wounds, respectfully) were targeted. As of press time, authorities were still tight-lipped about any motive, citing an ongoing investigation. Twelve-year-old Reyes' grief-stricken parents are cooperating, Sparks Deputy Police Chief Tom Miller said at a press conference, and there's also a chance they could be prosecuted.
Their son’s identity stayed under official wraps until city attorney Chet Adams seemingly let it slip to a journalist a few days after the devastating event, or—if you ask city spokespeople—until a confused reporter spoke with Adams, then printed the name that was already on everyone’s lips.
At any rate, out it came.
As one of Reyes’ friends later told the Associated Press, he was actually an upbeat kid, oft-smiling, and an eager fan of video games and bike rides. And while he was no big man on campus, Reyes certainly had friends. He had a family, too, though not much is known about them yet.
His parents “are grieving … and are going through a very challenging and difficult time,” Miller said before police officially named the boy, imploring the public to show empathy and patience.
But questions, particularly in regard to a motive, have kept coming. So have expressions of grief, often through the lens of adolescence.Remembering Mr. Landsberry
Landsberry “wasn't just my teacher,” as several students posted on Twitter. “He was my friend.”
“So sad,” wrote another person, under the handle #LisaHome. “Sparks HS teacher survives serving in Afghanistan but cannot survive teaching math in a middle school. RIP Mr. Landsberry.”
“I will miss you laughing and telling jokes when I was in your class back in 7th grade,” said Twitter user @ArVillalpando. “We all love you!!!”
The fun-loving Nevada Air National Guard master sergeant and former Marine was 45 years old. He was apt to banter with youngsters about everything from Batman to his sole classroom commandment: “Though shalt not annoy Mr. L.”
A Facebook page dubbed “Rest Easy Mr. Landsberry” had more than 18,000 likes by the weekend, and has became a virtual memorial wall, with students and strangers alike calling his final actions the ultimate sacrifice. Some have even proposed changing the school’s name in Landsberry’s honor.
“You once said, ’I’ll die doing something I love,’” read a colorful, carefully hand-painted sign posted during an Oct. 23 vigil at the school. “So not only did you die serving your country, but you died serving and protecting the students that loved you.”
Hundreds of somber-faced youth turned out that night, lighting candles, leaving symbolic gifts, and holding one another from time to time. Veterans and military personnel, some in fatigues, also dotted the crowd.
“My condolences to our fallen hero,” Washoe County School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez told reporters early in the event’s aftermath, looking to be near tears as he praised students and staff for their quick cooperation in evacuating the school.
The slain teacher had a wife, Sharon, and two doting stepdaughters, one of whom graduated from naval boot camp last week. Just before his death, a proud Landsberry jovially asked Clark if he should wear his dress blues to the ceremony.
He was eager to attend, said his brother, Reggie, going on to describe the loyal family man and dedicated educator: “He cared about people. He cared about his country. He really loved to teach. And he was one of those people who, if you needed help, you could call him up, and he would be there.”
When they could find time, the brothers liked fly-fishing together at Pyramid Lake, a tradition they’d upheld since childhood.
Landsberry’s ex-wife, Susan, didn’t learn of his death until the evening of Oct. 21, because—bleakly enough—her nephew was in a fatal car crash that same day.
“He was a great guy,” she said of her former spouse as she digested the news. “He was 100 percent honest.”
He had a soft spot for dogs, she added later, “and he loved his guns.”
Years ago, she said, a brief stint working for the Washoe County Sheriff’s department gave way to more schooling as the young man realized his passion for teaching.
Landsberry hailed from Birmingham, Ala., the National Guard reports, and was a graduate of Reno’s McQueen High School, Truckee Meadows Community College, the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Phoenix program. His military service brought him to Kuwait and Afghanistan, and earned him numerous honors.
His career with the Washoe County School District began in 2001 at Fred W. Traner Middle School, and by 2006, he’d assumed his role as a math teacher at Sparks, where he was also a popular soccer and basketball coach.
A celebration of his life—which Westboro Baptist Church is rumored to have added to its picketing list of military funerals, unfortunately—is slated for Nov. 3.Our permanent record
Counseling services have been under way at the school, which stayed closed for most of last week as the community began its lengthy healing process. Even President Barack Obama's office reached out to Sparks Mayor Geno Martini, offering support.
Meanwhile, the obvious question: Why do such shootings happen in the first place?
Not surprisingly, the national conversation is returning to other schools that have made somber headlines, such as Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High.
To another community’s collective horror, Massachusetts math teacher Colleen Ritzer was also brutally killed just a day after Landsberry. Her attacker was a student, too—a 14-year-old wielding a box cutter.
An avid Twitter user, Ritzer actually referenced the Sparks violence on the social networking site before she died, calling it “simply devastating.”
It’s not the only local school shooting in recent years. In 2006, Pine Middle School student James Scott Newman, then 14, brought a .38 caliber pistol to campus and wounded two classmates—supposedly after researching the Columbine High School massacre of 1999—but dropped the weapon when gym teacher Jencie Fagan enveloped him in a bear hug.
Dr. Harris, the trauma surgeon who treated Reyes’ surviving victims, said he rarely sees children who’ve been assaulted by their peers, and that most kids’ serious injuries are a result of sports or automobile accidents. But he does think violent injuries, such as gang-inflicted gunshot wounds, have noticeably increased among young people in the last five to 10 years.
As for what could be driving schoolchildren to brutality, Sparks parent Mary Brown had a quick answer. But it was not a simple one.
Brown—whose son, Tommy Wing, was another witness on Oct. 21—believes heightened expectations of students nationwide, fewer moments of downtime and creative curricula such as arts programming, and an overall worker-bee, test-obsessed system have worsened Americans’ educational experience to a dangerous degree.
Bullying is par for the course in public school, added Brown, a mom of six who said she previously worked for the school district.
“Every one of my kids has been hit, punched, you name it,” she said. “It’s been a fight just to keep my kids safe.”
Among other things, she speculated, “It comes down to No Child Left Behind stress; to making sure the students are in school [regardless of disciplinary or mental-health needs] and that no one’s suspended. Schools have to look good, and they can’t have any discrepancies as far as absences and suspensions.” (District spokesperson Victoria Campbell did not return calls for comment on this story.)
Washoe County has a slightly higher attendance rate than the state average, but Sparks Middle’s latest available federal progress report, which was posted last year, deems it “in need of improvement” because of low English language-arts performance. The school had adequate ratings otherwise, however, and while last year’s eighth-grade math and reading proficiency rates were below statewide figures, seventh graders did comparatively well.
Less-than-dazzling performance reports aren’t an indicator of violence, of course.
Perhaps what happened in Sparks is just an anomaly—a monstrous aberration for a quiet, misunderstood boy who few people knew, and one that played out despite the school district’s security system and police presence.Schools: safe, but safe enough?
Randy Jaques, who now lives in Florida, said he worked for WCSD's police department back in the '90s, and again from 2003 to 2004.
He responded to calls at Sparks Middle “many, many times,” Jaques said. “Nobody was assigned to that school … and that’s because they don’t have manpower within their budget to put a police officer in their middle school.” He left the district for good, he said, when he became the only armed officer at Hug High.
Clark, Landsberry’s colleague, couldn’t disagree more with notions that Sparks Middle School is dangerous.
“Sparks has always kind of had trouble getting over a bad reputation that it never really deserved,” he said. “Like every middle school in the area, we’ve had our fights, and every now and then we’d have a problem, [such as] finding marijuana on campus, but deep down, it’s a beautiful place to work.”
Many Sparks Middle School students are Hispanic, and the vast majority qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They are also, Clark said, “the sweetest, kindest, most loving students I could ever ask for.”
Chief Mike Mieras lamented the nation’s problem with violence—on and off school grounds.
“Unfortunately,” he said at a press conference, “in today’s society, this is not just a school issue. This has been an issue that’s occurred in theaters. It’s been an issue that’s occurred in churches, malls. … We’ve had [shootings] even on military bases, so we make our schools as safe as we can possibly make them.”
The district’s police department was established in the early ’70s. It employs 38 officers, and “has been kind of a leader in [making] the schools safe,” Mieras said.
Thirty-eight trained pros in uniform may sound like a lot, but they’re divided among more than 90 campuses, and only the high schools have armed cops on duty full time. Others are on a patrol circuit, and in regular contact with school administrators.
Two school-years ago, trustees approved a $15 million budget package for school security upgrades, some of which are still in construction throughout the district.
And after gunman Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 students and six staffers last December at Sandy Hook, Mieras called a meeting with federal, city, county and tribal law-enforcement agencies to discuss best practices “in the event of an active assailant.” Students’ families then attended a series of forums designed to brief them on district safety protocols.
As for what drove Reyes to kill, “people are making so many assumptions,” said Gardner, the mother—and one of many—who tearfully credited Landsberry with saving her son’s life. “It’s not a gun issue, and it’s not a gang issue.” Nor is her community a less than nurturing place to live, she said.
“It is a little rougher,” she offered. “But it’s a neighborhood of really hardworking individuals who are just trying to raise their families.” Gardner also takes umbrage with dismissively racist comments she said she’s heard in regard to the shooter.
“Somebody was saying, ’Oh, it’s just a Mexican,’” she recalled, her voice hardening. “My son is half-Mexican. What does it matter what race [Reyes] is?”
Ultimately, Gardner said, “This is an issue of kids not getting help when they need it.”A shared future
Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among those killed at Sandy Hook, issued a statement about Sparks as word began to spread.
“The unthinkable has happened yet again,” Hockley said on behalf of nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, which seeks to increase dialogue about gun safety and mental-health research, and serves families affected by the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“It’s moments like this that demand that we unite as parents to find common-sense solutions that keep our children—all children—safe, and prevent these tragedies from happening again and again.”
The Community Foundation of Western Nevada has established a support fund for students, staff and families of Sparks Middle School. But recovery has only just begun.
“This is a tragedy,” as Superintendent Martinez said, “and it’s going to take us awhile to heal from it.”
Gardner will never forget hearing a cluster of sirens that she likens to something from a TV show. Andrew, her son, has since maintained a cool exterior.
“He pushes it away,” his mother said. “It’s his way of dealing with it. And really, I think I’m taking it worse than he is.”
Her voice cracked with emotion.
“The what-ifs are bothering me right now.”
On Oct. 25, students came back to campus for counseling. Therapists brought dogs to comfort them, and gave the children huge sheets of paper with crayons and markers, prompting them to write letters to Mr. Landsberry, if they wanted to. Many were afraid to go into his room, which has been left untouched save for the packed lunch he’d left on his desk the morning he died. Clark finally removed that.
In fact, many kids were afraid to return to school at all. Clark was, too, and told them so.
He also reminded them it was OK to cry, and at times cried with them.
“We’re going to get through it together,” he promised, “and it will make us closer.”
Veteran teacher Vicki Hardy will eventually take over Landsberry’s class, Clark said.
The eighth-grader sounds older than his years when he surmises what’s in store.
“Experiencing something this traumatic,” the boy said, “well, you’re not going to forget it in a week.”