On January 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer killed two and injured nine at Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California. The school was located across the street from her house, so Spencer simply shot out of a window in her home while students waited outside for the school gate to open. She killed Principal Burton Wragg as he tried to protect the children. Head Custodian Mike Suchar was killed as he tried to assist Wragg. One police officer was killed as well.
After she fired 30 rounds, Spencer barricaded herself in her home for almost seven hours. Police tried to talk her out, while Spencer claimed that she would come out shooting. In the end, she surrendered to police. Spencer has gone down in infamy as one of the first school shooters, as one of the only female shooters, and for her famous quote on why she committed her crime: “I don’t like Mondays.”
Spencer had a history of deviant activity. Neighbors claimed she was involved in petty theft and drug abuse, and was chronically truant. She was obsessed with guns–an obsession her father fueled when he bought her a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle for Christmas in 1978, along with 500 rounds of ammunition. Yet another neighbor who claimed to be a close friend described Spencer as generally happy. A classmate called her nice, but said her fellow students were scared of her because she talked about killing a lot. Spencer told classmates that she was often stoned on LSD, marijuana, or some other drug. At the time of the shooting, Spencer was just 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighed only 90 pounds.
When asked why she shot at the students and officials, Spencer claimed it was fun and a way to liven up the day. It was easy, she said, like “shooting ducks in a pond.” She claimed that she enjoyed killing “a pig” (police officer) and wanted to kill more. She later claimed that she had been under the influence of alcohol and PCP but that investigators and prosecutors had conspired to hide her toxicology results. While investigators did find beer and whiskey bottles around her home, they say that results did not show Spencer was intoxicated. Psychologist Jonathan Fast has argued that Spencer suffered from some type of epilepsy, which is two to four times more common among violent offenders than among members of the general population.
Spencer was tried as an adult and pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, which she is still serving at California Institute for Women in Chico, California. She has been denied parole four times, most recently in 2009. She is not eligible for parole again until 2019. In her 2001 parole hearing, Spencer claimed for the first time that her father had physically and sexually abused her.
Spencer’s shooting inspired a song called “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats, as well as a documentary film called The Killing of America. Her famous phrase was also written on a wall in the popular 1980s movie The Breakfast Club. One of the students who survived the attack, Chris Stanley, was honored as Teacher of the Year in San Diego in 2007. He claims it was the heroic educators who tried to help that day who inspired him to teach.
- Fast, J. (2008). Ceremonial violence: A psychological explanation of school shootings. Woodstock, NY: Overland Press.
- O’Toole, M. (2000). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective.
- Quantico, VA: Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rowe, P. (2007, October 6), 1979 school shootings inspired boy to teach.