A Case of the Mondays: Brenda Spencer and the Cleveland Elementary School Shooting

Brenda Spencer on October 1, 1979 after pleading guilty to her crimes | Courtesy of Bing Images

“Ugh, it’s Monday” are the words that usually follow the arrival of the most dreaded day of the week. The sighs floating in the air are palpable and nothing seems possible. Mondays always carry with them a negative connotation and contain components such as depression, fatigue, and anguish. But to a San Diego elementary school, and to a troubled sixteen year old, Monday, January 29, 1979 held an even more distressing meaning.

Brenda Spencer’s home, from which she made her shots at the elementary school (taken in 2008) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Students at Grover Cleveland Elementary School, located in San Diego, California, began what they believed would be a normal Monday morning like any other, with bells ringing and students racing to their classes. Little did they know, however, that across the street, sixteen-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer was aiming her .22 caliber semiautomatic rifle right at society’s ultimate refuge, the elementary school, and its surroundings. After the first bell rang, Brenda broke the panels on the front door of her home, which was located right across the street from the elementary school. And she began to fire. The school’s principal, Burton Wragg, while rushing outside, was hit on the shoulder and chest with Spencer’s bullets and eventually died. Michael Suchar, the school’s custodian, ran outside with a blanket in order to cover Wragg and keep him from going into shock, but he quickly became the second victim of Spencer’s shooting and lost his life. In between all the chaos, 28 year old Robert Robb, a recent graduate of the police academy, while examining Wragg’s and Suchar’s bodies, was shot under his right shoulder blade.1 He would go on to survive though, along with the eight other children who were wounded in the incident. At least three of those children had abdominal wounds. A nine-year-old student, Cam Miller, was struck in the back with a bullet that exited through his chest without hitting any internal organs. Another, Christy Buell, was shot through her abdomen and in the buttocks, and had to undergo surgery in order to repair her intestine.2

When Gus Stevens, a reporter for the San Diego Evening Tribune, began calling around the area to gain more information about the shooting, he coincidentally placed a call to Spencer’s home where she gave him exactly what he wanted. She described the shooter, a sixteen year old, and the shooter’s address. When Stevens realized that she gave him her own address, he recognized what was going on and requested an interview while another staff member informed the police of the situation. The police, now aware of where the shots were coming from, were able evacuate the children and obstruct Spencer’s line of sight while trying to negotiate with her. After several hours, Brenda Spencer surrendered her weapon and several rounds of ammunition, and was subsequently arrested. While on the phone with Stevens, Spencer had stated that she was just shooting for the “fun of it.” She went on to say that she just didn’t like Mondays and did this “because it’s a way to cheer up the day.”3

Brenda Spencer’s Mugshot taken in 1996 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to her initial claim, she later went on to state in her 2001 parole hearing that she had been “sexually abused by [her] father” and was “waiting for the cops to show up so they could shoot [her].”4 This new information has fueled many more theories today about Brenda Spencer’s true motives in committing such a crime. During her pretrial psychological testing, an injury to Spencer’s temporal lobe came to light. Spencer has also stated in a letter from prison that she experiences “grand mal seizures” that she has to counteract with medications.5 Such a brain injury would definitely be a precursor to epilepsy, which is two to four times more common among violent offenders than the public.6 The lack of treatment she received for this disease, to some, proves the neglect that she experienced from her family and in her childhood. Psychologist Jonathan Fast introduces the idea that her brain injury, abuse, and the effects of it pushed her to her final actions. He believes that the shame, ridicule, inferiority, and powerlessness that she felt encouraged her to go as far as she did. In another letter she wrote in prison, she stated that her “father had done everything a person could do to another person. The beatings, the touching, the emotional abuse.” She went on to state that no one, not teachers or counselors, gave her assistance through this, so she simply thought that this was how the world and how life worked. When her father gifted her the .22 caliber rifle, she thought that he was finally telling her to do it: to take her life successfully, unlike her past suicide attempts, and leave the world forever.7

Whether these theories are true or not, Brenda Spencer was tried as an adult and pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and nine counts of assault. She was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison, and is still serving her sentence at the California Institute for Women. The shooting has inspired a song by the Boomtown Rats called “I Don’t Like Mondays,” and has also gained other media coverage through a documentary.8 Her action went down in history as the first high profile school shooting and has become a vanguard to many future, unimaginable school situations and violent outbreaks. Whether Spencer was a cold-hearted killer or a truly lost and confused soul that simply wanted an escape, it is undeniable that her horrible actions have had some frightening consequences in our modern world.

  1. Jonathan Fast, Ceremonial Violence (New York: The Overlook Press, 2008), 25, 70-71.
  2. Tamara Jones, “Look Back in Sorrow,” Good Housekeeping 227, no.5 (November 1998): 118.
  3. Jonathan Fast, “Unforgiven and Alone: Brenda Spencer and Secret Shame,” in School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies, And Concepts For Prevention, ed. Nils Böckler (New York: Springer, 2013), 253-255.
  4. Debra Sevey, “Subsequent Parole Consideration Hearing of Brenda Spencer,” (Capitol Electronic Reporting, 2001), 15-16.
  5. Jennifer Furio, Letters From Prison: Voices Of Women Murderers (New York: Algora Pub., 2001), 134.
  6. Jonathan Fast, ” Unforgiven and Alone: Brenda Spencer and Secret Shame,” in School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies, And Concepts For Prevention, ed. Nils Böckler (New York: Springer, 2013), 251.
  7. Jennifer Furio, Letters From Prison: Voices Of Women Murderers (New York: Algora Pub., 2001), 134-135.
  8. Encyclopedia of School Crime and Violence, September 2011, s.v. “Brenda Spencer,” by Laura L. Finley.
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  • These stories are always so sad. Before reading this article, I had never heard of this school shooting. I have never understood why people can do such horrible things like this. I wish someone could have been there for Brenda Spencer while she was growing up to possibly help prevent this, but I feel like she got the punishment she deserved. No matter what you have gone through in life, you should never take it out on other people, especially in this way. This was a great article because it tied in all of the details of Brenda Spencer’s past and included it into the plot of the article.

  • School shootings are events that always come unexpected to the public. A lot of questions arise, such as, why would someone commit such a crime? How did that person manage to commit such a crime? What is also very concerning is the fact that these are kids. A kid shouldn’t have that type of thought on their head. Brenda Spencer is most likely a victim of a society that incites violence.

  • It is ironic how school shootings are becoming something much more common. The things that Brenda Spencer had stated that pushed her to commit that act are confusing. First she states that she did it for fun and because she hates Mondays, but later on she said that as a child she was neglected and abused by her father so as to why she felt the need to shoot at an elementary school is in my head. I’m questioning weather there was something else. Even if it sounds reasonable what the article said about the emotions she felt for example powerlessness.

  • It is sad to see such a young girl take two lives and effect so many others. It is also sad to know that we will never truly know her motives. It may have been her insanity but it may also be her father, but it will sadly forever be a mystery. I just hope the one good thing from tragedy’s like these is that people will learn from them and understand that it should never be the option.

  • Creative article! I liked how you told the story, short, sweet, and got all the details you needed. I have to also agree with you that Spencer’s father was a lot to blame for the atrocious crime that she committed. But, I feel sympathize a bit because it did not seem that there was anyone close to her that could/would give her the help and advice she really needs. This is an unfortunate event, that left several dead, and damages the lives of many innocent elementary kids. What made it the most entertaining also was the fact that you used real letters written after the even to show the effects her past had on her, which were also cited very well. Overall, I thought you did a wonderful job on this article and I would defiantly read more.

  • It is always depressing to read these types of stories. This is the first time that I have heard of this incident. It always confuses me why would anybody even think about doing such a horrific thing. Michael Suchar must of had a big heart to try and help Burton Wragg survive. I do not care how messed up your life was in the past you should never take that out on anyone else especially those eight children that were wounded. Brenda Spencer was a horrible person and there is no excuses for what she did.

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