Shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 4, 1986, 14-year-old Kristofor Hans pulls a gun from his bag in the auditorium of Fergus High School in Lewistown, Mont. The pistol is a Smith and Wesson .44 revolver with a six-inch-long barrel that he swiped from his stepdad's pickup. As he shows it to his classmate Shannon Foucher, he lays out the plan, which he would later tell investigators was inspired by a now out-of-print novel called Rage. At the beginning of seventh period, Kris will knock on the door of Foucher's typing class. She will meet him at his locker and she will become his hostage. Then they'll go to room 213, the second-floor foreign language room, where Kris will kill his French teacher, Mrs. Simonfy.
Kristofor Hans was not the first person to bring a loaded weapon to school, but that day in December came at a time when Americans were waking up to the idea of school as a potentially dangerous place. Through the 1990s and 2000s, school shootings occasionally made the news, and mass shootings at Columbine in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2006 made national headlines and invigorated divisive national debates about firearms regulations and mental health. But no single incident has changed the way school administrators think about security as much as the December 2012 murders at Sandy Hook Elementary.
"People couldn't believe it happened, but it happened," Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle says of the murders in Newtown, Conn. Less than a week after the incident, Apostle announced plans to form a task force to recommend ways to make Missoula's schools safer. "We have our regular drills, we have our safety plans, we have our building plans, but when something like [Sandy Hook] happens, you're digging deep, if you have any sense about you, and asking, 'Are we truly prepared for something like this?'"
Three decades ago, no one was asking these questions in Lewistown. On Dec. 4, 1986, Fergus High Assistant Principal John Moffatt was checking on substitute teachers when he heard what sounded like "something in the heating system had exploded" on the second floor. He ran up the stairs, rounded a corner and found Kristofor Hans standing at the opposite end of the hallway, a revolver in his hand. The first bullet hit Moffatt in the stomach. The second whizzed by his head.
Today, Moffatt works as a substitute teacher for MCPS, and aside from Congress passing new firearms legislation"common sense" changes, Moffatt says, like universal background check—he's not sure how to prepare for the unimaginable. "I think it would be unlikely that we would create a facility [in Missoula] that is more technologically prepared to deal with something like this than Sandy Hook was," he says of the school that serves one of the nation's wealthiest counties, and that was credited earlier in 2012 by a private security firm as "being proactive on school safety."
"And in the end," Moffatt continues, "a determined person was able to get past all that."
When Kristofor Hans was little, his father, Michael Hans, beat him with a belt. Sometimes with the strap, sometimes with the buckle. During Kris' 1988 sentencing hearing, his mother, Terri Hardy, recalled her ex-husband's harsh parenting: "No matter how well [Kris] dressed, no matter how well he combed his hair, that hair was never really combed quite well enough..." she said. "Kris would be severely reprimanded for it."
Around ages 5 and 6, Kris stopped crying. His father would hit him, and if a sob welled inside of him, Kris would swallow it down. One day, Hardy remembered, Kris was receiving punishment for "something or other," and Hans accidentally yanked Kris' hair. Kris immediately began to cry before choking back the tears. "That became the new form of punishment. Sometimes Kris would still get the belt, but more than likely he'd get his hair pulled...," Hardy said. "And he would just force himself not to cry."
In May 1979, Hans and Hardy divorced. Hardy received custody of the couple's two daughters, Janice and Kim, and Kris went to live with his father. At that time, Hans was studying to become a school psychologist and took Kris to live in Deer Lodge and Great Falls so he could complete internships. Eventually, the father and son settled in Casper, Wyo. Hardy remarried later in 1979, and settled with her new family in Lewistown.
Kris spent the summer of 1981 with his mother in Montana, and remained there for the school year. He returned to Casper in the summer of 1982, but again was enrolled in a Lewistown school that fall. Kris was happy thereto that point, it was the longest he had attended one school—and, in June 1983, Hardy requested Hans allow their son to spend a third year of school in Montana. It's what Kris wanted. When Hans refused, she filed a court petition requesting that their custody decree be modified. In 1984, the petition was denied because the court felt "[Michael Hans' home] provides considerably more structure and challenge to a very talented and capable young man."
In spring 1986, while living with his father, Kris got on a bicycle and rode to Kaycee, Wyo., about 67 miles north of Casper. For Hardy, it was the last straw. She went to Casper to ask Hans what it would take to let Kris move back to Montana. Hans outlined contingencies regarding schoolwork, grades and participation in sports. Hardy agreed, and when she returned a short time later to move Kris out, Hans handed her a contract, which she refused to sign. Once back in Montana, Hans sent her a second draft. She refused again because she felt the "contingencies were unreasonable."
In summer 1986, Hardy and Kris received a third and final draft. Among other things, it stipulated that Kris participate in sports and for his freshman fall enroll in classes not typically taken by first-year students: geometry, world history and French II. The contract also required Kris maintain a 3.3 GPA (3 As, 2 Bs). Breach of any of the contract's clauses would result in Kris moving back to Casper.
- photo courtesy of Rob Stutz
- Fergus High School
"I had my very serious concerns about it. ... I was under the definite impression, and so was Kris, that if some agreement did not get signed, Kris was going back to Wyoming," Hardy said during her testimony. "I knew down there Kris was unhappy."
In August 1986, as Kris began his first semester at Fergus High, he and his mother signed the contract.
In the early 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control began the School-Associated Violent Death Study. In partnership with the Departments of Education and Justice, the study set out to provide data to help "inform efforts to prevent fatal school violence." From the outset, the findings were troubling, if, at that time, lacking in context. During the '92-'93 academic year, the study found that 57 people, including 34 children between 5-18 years old, were murdered on school grounds. During the following year, 48 people were killed. Between fall 1992 and spring 1999, the study would later report 358 people were victims of homicide at school.
During the early years of the study, the enigma of school violence began to move toward the front of public consciousness as well. In 1992, ABC's "Primetime Live" produced a story called "Deadly Lessons" about violence—namely gun-related—in American schools. Anchor Diane Sawyer introduced the piece with an anecdote about a 6-year-old threatening his teacher with a gun. "It's a timely example of what educators say is the spreading contingent of guns and violence in American schools," she says. "Most of us have already thought it was an inner city problem confined to a few gangs and a handful of schools. But it's not."
Still, for most educators, the threat of a person brandishing a loaded weapon in their own school was an abstraction. Melanie Charlson taught math in Missoula public schools in the mid-1990s. She remembers hearing about school shootings in the news, even in Montana, but the threat didn't seem imminent. Like most school districts at the time, MCPS protocol didn't account for a gunman walking down the hallway. "Things like lockdown drills were not a part of my early career. There wasn't a lot of training for that," she says while sitting behind her desk at the Missoula Education Association, where she became president in 2011. "It was so far removed from what we knew. We had that shooting in Lewistown, but even that seemed like an isolated incident at the time."
It wasn't until 1999, she says, that things began to change.
Minutes after 11 a.m. on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris, 17, and Dylan Klebold, 16, planted two 20-pound propane bombs in the cafeteria at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The bombs were supposed to detonate at the beginning of the lunch period, killing most of the people in the school. The boys would wait in the parking lot armed with two sawed-off shotguns, a semi-automatic pistol and a Hi-Point carbine rifle to pick off the fleeing survivors.
When the bombs didn't explode, Harris and Klebold walked to the west entrance of the school and began shooting people.
The school's resource officer was eating lunch in his car at a nearby park when a custodian called him on the radio. He got back to the school and exchanged several shots with the boys before they disappeared through the school doors.
Nearly 50 minutes later, a police SWAT team entered the school, just before Harris and Klebold killed themselves. In the end, 12 students and one teacher were murdered. Twenty-four others were injured.