On February 29, 2000, Kayla Rolland was in her first-grade classroom at Theo J. Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, Michigan, clearing her desk before going to computer class. Most of her classmates were already lined up in the hallway, along with their teacher, Alicia Judd. Kayla and classmate six-year-old Dedrick Owens were exchanging words. Some reports state that Kayla yelled at Dedrick for spitting and standing by her desk. All reports agree on what happened next: Dedrick pulled a .32-caliber pistol and pointed it at two other girls in the room. Then he turned to Kayla and said, “I don’t like you!” Some say Kayla responded, “So?” Owens then pulled the trigger, fatally shooting six-year-old Rolland in the chest. When Judd heard the shot, she returned to the classroom and called 911 from her cell phone. Owens put the gun back in his desk and ran into the hall, where he was stopped by school officials. Paramedics arrived on the scene to find Rolland bleeding profusely from her wound. She was transported to Hurley Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
When Owens left for school that morning, he carried both the Davis .32-caliber semi-automatic handgun and a knife. He had stolen both items from Jamelle James, a 19-year-old tenant in his uncle’s house, where he (Dedrick) lived with his eight-year old brother. Dedrick’s father was in jail for parole violation following a conviction for “intent to distribute” illegal drugs. His mother was also a known drug user and had been evicted from her home. James would ultimately be charged in the Kayla Rolland murder case with involuntary manslaughter, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and gross neglect. Because he was only six years of age, Owens could not be charged with any crime.
Nevertheless, many knew that Owens was a troubled child. School officials acknowledge that Owens was previously suspended from school and was regularly held after school for “saying the F word, flipping people off, pinching, and hitting.” Earlier in the school year, he had stabbed a classmate with a pencil. Rolland had also been previously targeted by Owens. It has been reported that the day before her murder, Owens attempted to kiss Rolland, but was rebuffed. Schools officials said in interviews following the shooting that Owens was scheduled to attend anger management classes. Many of these reports are difficult to verify due to Owens’s young age and the laws designed to protect a child’s privacy. The Genesee County prosecutor noted that laws in most states contend that children younger than the age of seven are not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. Additionally, many news reports failed to name six-year-old Owens as the shooter in Rolland’s case.
The fact remains there were many red flags concerning Owens–even on the day of the shooting. On that morning, a student reported that Owens was in possession of the knife. Although the teacher took the knife away from Owens, she failed to send him to the office or report the incident to school administration. A classmate of Rolland and Owens, Chris Boaz, reported to his grandmother that Owens also threatened Boaz’s uncle earlier that morning and said, “Do you want me to take my gun out and shoot you?” Boaz was seven years old when he witnessed the shooting of Rolland; after the event, his mother reported, he did not want to return to school and suffered from fear and anxiety.
In an interview with County Sheriff Bill Pickell, Dedric Darnell Owens, the father of Dedrick Owens, stated he knew instantly his son was involved in the Buell Elementary School shooting. “A cold, sickening feeling came over me … I knew it was my son that did the shooting,” he said. Pickell asked how Owens could be so sure and Owens stated, “Because of his past violent acts.” Owens went on to say that his son “watched violent movies and TV.” Once Owens asked his son why he fought other children, and his son replied, “Because I hate them.”
Rolland’s murder sent shockwaves throughout the United States. How and why could a first-grade squabble end with one six-year-old killing another? This question raised public consciousness and ultimately helped form public policy regarding school violence and gun control in the United States. At the national level, President Bill Clinton, along with gun control proponents, publicly asked questions that were echoed around the country: “How did that child get that gun?” and “Why could the child fire the gun? If we have the technology to put in these child safety locks, why don’t we do it?” Immediately, new calls were made for additional gun control legislation at the national level. President Clinton urged Congress to pass legislation before April 20, 2000, the first anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School. Sociocultural interest in the subjects of violence in schools, the effects of domestic violence and child abuse on children, and the larger political debate concerning Second Amendment rights and gun control also swelled.
On April 20, 2000, an article appeared in The New York Times with follow-up on the Rolland case. A spokesman for Tamarla Owens, Dedrick’s mother, had issued a statement on April 19: Owens was enrolled in an unspecified private school in the Flint, Michigan, area. State officials had placed the boy in the school, and the state of Michigan was paying his expenses.
Filmmaker Michael Moore brought additional attention to the case in 2000 with his award-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine. In the film, he suggests that Tamarla Owens was a hard-working mother caught up in welfare reform laws that required her to work two jobs.
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