THURSTON — Each day, 12 children die and 32 more are injured from gun violence in America.
Twenty-five years ago at Thurston High School, two more names – 16-year-old Ben Walker and 17-year-old Mikael Nickolauson – were added to the nearly 900 students who have died by gun violence at schools since that tragic Thursday morning.
On May 21, 1998, 15-year-old freshman Kipland “Kipp” Kinkel opened fire on his classmates.
Wearing a trenchcoat, Kinkel walked into Thurston High School’s cafeteria, armed with more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and two pistols. He started firing his father’s Ruger .22 caliber rifle.
That day, Kinkel killed two students and wounded 25 others. Later, police found his parents, Bill and Faith Kinkel, dead at home. He shot them, too.
The Thurston Shooting preceded the infamous Columbine shooting by nearly a year.
After his arrest, Kinkel was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He pleaded guilty to the shootings and was sentenced to nearly 112 years in prison, where he remains today.
It was the end of a string of four deadly school shootings from Jonesboro, Ark. to Pearl, Miss. during that academic year. At the time, the 1997-98 academic year was one of the bloodiest for school shootings.
That year, the string of shootings seemed a shocking anomaly. But the last attack of the year, at Thurston High, with 25 injured, lent dark clarity to any question about whether America would face something more persistent.
The Thurston students are adults now. Many are married and have children of their own. Some still live in town. Some are divorced. Some moved away. Life’s gone on.
Still, the tragedy continues to ripple through their lives.
Each new mass shooting intensifies their anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Grace Sanders was in the cafeteria when Kinkel started shooting.
She was playing basketball before school, like she always did – and had walked over to grab breakfast before class started.
“I thought noisemakers were going off for class elections. But the sound was actually two gunshots in the hallway,” said Sanders, a sophomore at the time.
When she entered the cafeteria, people were already hiding under the tables.
Sanders said she remembers feeling frantic and confused.
“I froze and wasn’t really able to move,” Sanders said. “My friend pulled me under the table, and as (Kinkel) came towards us, the gun was pointed at me. It clicked. He ran out of bullets. And then it was over.”
Seven students were involved in subduing and disarming Kinkel until police arrived.
Grace can only describe the incident as “surreal.”
“If I had been just a couple of inches closer, it could’ve been me,” she said. “And we just ran, we got out of there as fast as we could.”
Even now, Sanders feels a sense of panic and guilt when she talks about that morning 25 years ago.
“I don’t consider myself a survivor,” she said. “I usually reserve that term for the ones that were actually shot. It’s kind of hard for me to associate myself as a survivor because I don’t have the physical scars that everybody else does. I’m a witness to the tragedy.”
She’s not alone. Since then, over 338,000 students have experienced gun violence at school and are living with the trauma it’s created.
The rest of the year was a blur, she said.
“We just tried to carry on through the tragedy and still get some schooling done,” she said. “Back then, when I was 17, this was unheard of.”
Sanders still lives in Springfield. She works at Willamette Valley Treatment Center in wellness and recovery services, dedicating her life to support others who have also suffered from trauma or addiction.
Watching the news, Sanders said she’s often reminded of that horrible day.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” she said.
This year alone, the country has faced at least 202 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive – more than the number of days in 2023.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” she repeated. “But I hope no one else has to experience what I did. The trauma involved with that history is disturbing. You never feel really secure.”
Ribbon of Promise
The idea for the nonprofit, Ribbon of Promise, started the day after firefighters and ambulances flooded Thurston High School when the emergency call came over the radio: “We’ve got students down all over the place.”
Former Springfield fire chief Dennis Murphy started the Ribbon of Promise with a mission to “unite the nation in an effort to prevent school violence by acting as a resource for communication, education, planning, and action.”
In the spirit of Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s red ribbon campaign, ribbons of sky blue symbolize hope for a brighter future and reflect the firefighters’ uniforms.
Over its tenure, the campaign prevented 50 potential shootings nationwide.
The campaign, which focused on encouraging kids to report threats, lasted seven years before it ended in debt.
“We never really figured out how to raise money for it,” Murphy said. “People simply wanted to bury their heads and make it go away.”
It’s a hard message to hear, but the need remains, now more than ever, with no apparent end in sight to the increase in gun violence on school campuses, he said.
The campaign helped fund a 12-minute video produced by Springfield High School marketing students called “Not My Friends, Not My School,” intended to encourage students to speak out about anything suspicious in their schools or involving classmates.
“The important thing is what we did learn – student intelligence is the key to stopping school attacks. The message of the video was, ‘You have the power to stop this. You need to speak up,'” Murphy said.
Kinkel had been arrested and released a day before bringing a gun to school.
According to Sandy Hook Promise, in four out of five school shootings, at least one other person had knowledge of the attacker’s plan but failed to report it.
But the campaign lost money each month. By the end, it was about $70,000 in debt. Murphy, who retired in 2010 after 30 years with the Springfield Fire Department, ended up swallowing much of that, he said.
Since Thurston, Murphy has seen school violence escalate into the “new normal” – something he attests is treatable.
“Ribbon of Promise was one of the first and most significant efforts to reduce school violence,” he said. “And the root cause remains today, in malls and in theaters. The best tool we have is intel.”
When he founded Ribbon of Promise, there was little information on domestic terrorists, Murphy said. Today, he hopes its teachings will live on, and that students who see something speak up and report it to their teachers, parents or law-enforcement.
“The purpose of being reminded of this event every year is to dedicate and rededicate ourselves to diligence that would prevent an attack from occurring here or anywhere,” he said. “That then makes meaning and value for the boys who lost their lives at Thurston High School, and the many others who will never get over their wounds. Those people paid with their flesh and their lives. … In their memory, rather than see the sorrow and the trauma, ask what was done about it. And after Thurston, something was done about it. It (intel) remains today the only effective way to stop it.”
For Sanders’s parents, Dave and Mary Jo Sanders – the 25-year mark brings up challenging memories.
And a sense of urgency.
“At our age, we both have had to accept a lot of things we never dreamed of,” Mary Jo said. “But you know, this becoming just ‘the new normal’ isn’t one I’m willing to accept.”
That year, Mary Jo worked on the rehab unit at PeaceHealth, and remembers the children coming in for treatment.
“It was clearly the worst phone call I ever got,” she said. “And our kids were both alive. There’s something different about (the 25-year mark). We’ve done so much healing as a family, but some wounds aren’t visible.”
For Dave, the weight of a tragedy’s ripple effects – the shock carried to students, families, friends, teachers, loved ones out of state and nearby – lie heavy on his mind.
“For us, having lived through it, it’s different than losing a child,” he said. “It’s so much broader than that. It has had such an impact on our community, all of the kids with wounded siblings, all of their classmates and their parents, it just grows, once you see how big that tragedy is.”
“And at the time, I don’t know if naive is the word, but we never thought it would happen in our community,” Mary Jo added.
The two recall Springfield pulling together to support each other and to work toward prevention – a fence outside the school was filled with flowers, balloons and graduation caps.
“Obviously, it hasn’t worked,” she said. “It’s important to remember that it wasn’t just Thurston – Kipp’s mom was a beloved Spanish teacher at Springfield High – and so those students were rocked, it hit close to home for them, even though fortunately the shooting didn’t actually happen there. There are so many unseen ripple effects.”
For their family, each new shooting brings a tidal wave of uncertainty.
“Anyone who has been through that experience shudders when they hear about another. It hurts your heart, to feel that helplessness, to know how to help your kids. It’s become so commonplace,” she said.
“I just wish they knew the real impact that the shooting has on the whole community,” Dave added.
The two have recently joined the local Moms Demand Action chapter – a grassroots movement aimed at fighting for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence.
This year, the Eugene/Springfield members of Moms Demand Action are coordinating a “wear orange event,” to “earn, reflect, and deepen the communities commitment to keeping everyone safe and honor those who’ve been taken by gun violence,” on June 3 at Springfield’s Island Park at 11 a.m.
“With our event, we join communities across the country in our call to end gun violence. Together, we call for meaningful action to save lives,” said Diane Peterson, Oregon MDA chapter leader. “This year one of the reasons we chose Island Park in Springfield is because we want to center our work in communities most impacted by gun violence. Springfield has one of the highest city firearm suicide rates in the nation and is the site of one of the first deadly school shootings at Thurston High School in 1998. This year is the 25-year mark of the Thurston shooting, and we will include a special tribute to the victims and survivors of that tragedy.”
Mary Jo said the event being on this side of the river has a nice ring to it.
“Twenty-five years ago, we really wanted to lead the nation in preventing these kinds of things from happening,” Mary Jo said. “As things have gotten bigger and worse, that has gotten lost. But I feel like it’s not too late. It’s taken longer than we would want, but I think our community could still step up and play a bigger part in trying to end this.”
Less than a year after the shooting at Thurston High, 12 students and one teacher were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. As with Springfield, mass shootings in Littleton, in Newtown, Conn., in Parkland, Fla., and most recently in Knoxville, Tenn., have given these towns an unwanted spot on the map.
While no formal event is planned, Brian Richardson, communications director for Springfield Public schools says staff at Thurston have continued to care for the memorial on campus.
Twenty five years later, Grace said she’ll remember the shooting at Thurston the same way she does every year.
“I sit and think,” she said, “About all of us, those of us who were there and those of us who just missed it. And how hard we all worked to fight our way back toward a normal life.”
Research was gathered from archival news coverage at the UO Library, including The Daily Emerald, The Oregonian, and KLCC for this report.