by Kevin Johnson
STOCKTON, CALIF. - Barbara Sarkany had just stepped away from the blackboard in her kindergarten classroom when a fusillade of bullets ripped through the wall.
The explosion of firepower instantly pulverized Sheetrock into fine white particles that hung in the room and much of the building like an eerie fog.
On the playground outside, rapid pops of gunfire sent more than 200 students (mostly first-, second- and third-graders) scrambling for cover; some were felled in their tracks. "Oh my God!" teacher Susan Rothman called out of the chaos. "They are killing our kids."
Rob Young, then 6 years old, wasn't immediately aware he had been hit twice until he breathlessly sprinted through the door of his first-grade classroom - rays of sunlight streaming through bullet holes in the walls - where another wounded classmate noticed blood pooling near Young's chest and streaming from a hole in his right sneaker.
"I remember him saying, 'Robbie, I think we've been shot,'" Young said. "I really thought I was gonna die, because that's what I always saw on TV: You get shot and you die."
The stunning attack 24 years ago, which left five elementary school children dead and 29 others wounded, was the nation's "Sandy Hook" before last December's massacre in Newtown, Conn. Almost a quarter of a century later, the nation's contentious fault lines over gun rights and the debate over how to curb senseless mass killings remain similar.
Except for the fatal scale of the Connecticut shooting (20 children and six educators were killed Dec. 14), the assault at Cleveland Elementary School here featured near-identical and tragic themes: young victims, a troubled gunman and a military-style rifle. Then, Patrick Purdy, a deranged 24-year-old drifter, turned a schoolyard packed with children - many of them sons and daughters of southeast Asian immigrants - into a killing field. He later fatally shot himself.
Like Newtown, the Stockton shooting helped prompt a heated national debate about gun control, culminating in a landmark, 10-year federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. A shock to the national psyche, the schoolyard shootings and the testimony of Stockton officials, including then-Mayor Barbara Fass, first served as an emotional springboard to broad gun-control legislation in California before Congress approved its assault weapon ban in 1994.
The Senate is poised to begin discussions this month on a package of proposed gun measures offered in the wake of Newtown. Last week, President Obama characterized the proposals as "our best chance in more than a decade" to win new controls on firearms. That package will not include a similar gun ban or a renewed prohibition on high-capacity ammunition magazines, which also passed - and expired - in the years since Stockton.
"For all those who say we shouldn't and can't ban assault weapons: How can they say that?" Vice President Biden said in late March, urging Congress to reconsider including the assault weapons ban.
"Take a look at those 20 beautiful babies (killed at Sandy Hook)," he said. "I was told in 1992 that there was no way, you would never beat the gun lobby - it was not possible. Well, in 1994, we did."
Twenty-four years after Stockton, Newtown is inspiring an emotional reawakening of activism here that is closely mimicking the divisive national debate over gun rights.
On one side: the retired Sarkany, 76, and four other former teachers who were on duty Jan. 17, 1989. As founding members of the so-called Cleveland School Survivors Group, assembled in the past month, they are reaching out together for the first time to join forces with national advocates for a host of new gun-control measures, including expanded background checks.
Many, including Patti Doll, 60, Adrienne Egeland, 65, and Rothman, 68, have only recently begun to speak publicly about the most painful aspects of a day that changed them forever.
It was only after Newtown, said Julie Schardt, 65, a retired second-grade teacher at Cleveland, that for the first time she shared the grim details of the carnage she saw that day with her own husband of 43 years.
"We are ready to do something," Schardt said of the budding teachers' alliance. "There was something very different about (Newtown) and also too familiar."
The teachers are not the only voices calling out from 1989.
The other side of the debate is represented by an unlikely foe: Rob Young, a 30-year-old police officer, who still bears the physical scars of a day he "will never forget."
Like his teachers, who still refer to him as "Robbie," Young was moved to "do something" after Newtown. But that "something" has left his former teachers shaking their heads - some in disbelief - that their former charge stands firmly with the powerful gun rights lobby, opposing any new gun restrictions.
"There isn't a gun law in place that would have stopped what happened to me," Young said. "I have never blamed the gun. It wasn't the fault of the AK-47. If Patrick Purdy didn't have a gun and still wanted to do something, he would have found another way to do it."
WHY NEWTOWN RESONATES
The roster of recent U.S. campus shootings reads like an unlikely tour of small-town America: Jonesboro, Ark., 1998; Littleton, Colo., 1999; Red Lake, Minn., 2005; Nickel Mines, Pa., 2006; Blacksburg, Va., 2007.
None of them went unnoticed by the Cleveland School survivors. Yet nothing struck them quite like the killings at Sandy Hook.
Perhaps it was the similarity in the victims' extreme youth - all 6 or 7 at the time of the attacks. Maybe the target: an elementary school like their own where kids were supposed to be safely shielded from the worst of life's horrors.
Whatever it was, Susan Rothman said she and her former teaching colleagues began reaching out for one another - on the telephone and in person - in ways they never had before.
"I was really upset," Rothman said, recalling her post-Newtown conversations with Egeland, Doll, Schardt, Sarkany and others.
Their conversations seemed to open a box of raw emotions.
Egeland, for example, had not until recently told Doll that she had long felt "jealous" that her colleague had been able to help save a young student by using her hands to contain the bleeding from a thigh wound. The memory remains, Egeland said, because that same day she could do nothing to help a mortally wounded child who lay in the path of teachers and aid workers searching for live victims who could actually benefit from their assistance.
"I had to pass her more than once," Egeland said, recalling the child's lifeless body.
"I think we were all heartbroken that something like this, something so familiar, could happen again," Schardt said of the group's collective reaction to Newtown. "This time, I got angry."
Gradually, the heartbreak and outrage brought them closer, ultimately moving them to organize into vocal advocates for a range of gun-control measures, from a renewal of the assault weapons ban and prohibitions on high-capacity gun magazines to expanded background checks.
Rothman said the recent decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to strip the gun ban and ammunition clip limitations from the package to be debated on the Senate floor "really took the wind out of our sails. But we will regroup."
From the beginning, Schardt said the group was "realistic" about the viability of a new gun ban.