The Grover Cleveland Elementary School shooting took place on January 29, 1979, at a public elementary school in San Diego, California, United States. The principal and a custodian were killed; eight children and a police officer were injured. A 16-year-old girl, Brenda Spencer, who lived in a house across the street from the school, was convicted of the shootings. Tried as an adult, she pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and was given an indefinite sentence. As of February 2019, she remains in prison.
A reporter reached Spencer by phone while she was still in the house after the shooting, and asked her why she did it. She answered: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day," which inspired Bob Geldof to write the Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays."
Brenda Spencer (born April 3, 1962) lived in the San Carlos neighborhood of San Diego, California in a house across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary School in the San Diego Unified School District. Age 16, she was 5'2" (157 cm) and had bright red hair. She is said to have self-identified as "having been gay from birth." After her parents separated, she lived with her father, Wallace Spencer, in poverty. They slept on a single mattress on the living room floor, with empty alcohol bottles throughout the house.
Acquaintances said Spencer expressed hostility toward policemen, had spoken about shooting one and had talked of doing something big to get on television. Although Spencer showed exceptional ability as a photographer, winning first prize in a Humane Society competition, she was generally uninterested in school. She attended Patrick Henry High School where one teacher recalled frequently inquiring if she was awake in class. Later, during tests while she was in custody, it was discovered Spencer had an injury to the temporal lobe of her brain. It was attributed to an accident on her bicycle.
In early 1978, staff at a facility for problem students, into which Spencer had been referred for truancy, informed her parents that she was suicidal. That summer, Spencer, who was known to hunt birds in the neighborhood, was arrested for shooting out the windows of Cleveland Elementary with a BB gun and for burglary. In December, a psychiatric evaluation arranged by her probation officer recommended that Spencer be admitted to a mental hospital for depression, but her father refused to give permission. For Christmas 1978, he gave her a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition. Spencer later said, "I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun." When asked why he might have done that, she answered, "I felt like he wanted me to kill myself."
On the morning of Monday, January 29, 1979, Spencer began shooting at children waiting for Principal Burton Wragg (aged 53) to open the gates to Cleveland Elementary. She injured eight children. Spencer shot and killed Wragg as he tried to help children. She also killed custodian Mike Suchar (aged 56) as he tried to pull a student to safety. A police officer (aged 28), responding to a call for assistance during the incident, was wounded in the neck as he arrived.
After firing thirty times, Spencer barricaded herself inside her home for several hours. While there, she spoke by telephone to a reporter from The San Diego Union-Tribune. Spencer told the reporter she shot at the schoolchildren and adults because, "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." She also told police negotiators the children and adults whom she shot were easy targets and that she was going to "come out shooting." Spencer has been repeatedly reminded of these statements at parole hearings. Ultimately, she surrendered. Police officers found beer and whiskey bottles cluttered around the house but said Spencer did not appear to be intoxicated when arrested.
Imprisonment of Spencer
Spencer was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. On April 4, 1980, a day after her 18th birthday, she was sentenced to 25 years to life. In prison, Spencer was diagnosed as an epileptic and received medication to treat her epilepsy and depression. While at the California Institution for Women in Chino, she worked repairing electronic equipment.
Under the terms of her indeterminate sentence, Spencer became eligible for hearings to consider her suitability for parole in 1993. Normally, very few people convicted on a charge of murder were able to obtain parole in California before 2011. As of December 2015, she has been unsuccessful at four parole board hearings. At her first hearing, Spencer said she had hoped police would shoot her and that she had been a user of alcohol and drugs at the time of the crime, which contradicted the results of drug tests done when she was taken into custody. In her 2001 hearing, Spencer first claimed that her father had been subjecting her to beatings and sexual abuse, but he said the allegations were not true. The parole board chairman said that as she had not previously told any prison staff about the allegations, he doubted whether they were true. In 2005, a San Diego deputy district attorney cited an incident of self-harm from four years earlier when Spencer's girlfriend was released from jail, as showing that she was psychotic and unfit to be released. The self-harm is commonly reported as scratching the words "courage" and "pride" into her own skin; however, Spencer corrected this during her parole hearing as "runes" reading "Unforgiven" and "alone." In 2009, the board again refused her application for parole and ruled it would be ten years before she would be considered again.
As of February 2019, she remains in prison and is housed at the California Institution for Women in Chino.
Spencer was the inspiration for the song "I Don't Like Mondays," written by Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers for their band the Boomtown Rats, which was released later that year. Geldof and his band were in San Diego performing at The Roxy Theater, a small movie theater and concert hall in the Pacific Beach district, on February 27, 1979, and the preliminary legal proceedings against Spencer were headlining local news broadcasts. I Don't Like Mondays was also the title of a 2006 television documentary about the event.
A plaque and flagpole were erected at Cleveland Elementary in memory of the shooting victims. The school was closed in 1983, along with a dozen other schools around the city, due to declining enrollment. In the ensuing decades, it was leased to several different charter and private schools. From 2005 to 2017, it housed the Magnolia Science Academy, a public charter middle school serving students in grades 6-8.
On January 17, 1989, almost ten years after the events at San Diego's Grover Cleveland Elementary, there was another shooting at a school named Grover Cleveland Elementary, this one in Stockton, California. Five students were killed and thirty were injured. One survivor of the 1979 shooting described herself as "shocked, saddened, horrified" by the eerie similarities to their own traumatic experience.
Bob Geldof, then the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, read about the incident when a news story about it came off the telex at WRAS-FM, the campus radio station at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He was particularly struck by Spencer's claim that she did it because she did not like Mondays, and began writing a song about it, also incorporating the reporters' "Tell me why?," called "I Don't Like Mondays." It was published in July 1979 and was number one for four weeks in the United Kingdom, and was the band's biggest hit in their native Ireland. Although it did not make the Top 40 in the U.S. it still received extensive radio airplay (outside of the San Diego area) despite the Spencer family's efforts to prevent it. Geldof has later mentioned that, "[Spencer] wrote to me saying 'she was glad she'd done it because I'd made her famous,' which is not a good thing to live with."
The 1999 book Babyface Killers: Horrifying True Stories of America's Youngest Murderers, authored by Clifford L. Linedecker dedicates the book's prologue to Spencer and refers to her crimes in multiple chapters.
The 2008 book Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings, by Jonathan Fast, analyzes the Cleveland Elementary shooting and four other cases from a psychological perspective. These are the other shootings reported on: the Columbine High School shooting, the shootings at Simon's Rock College, the Bethel Regional High School shooting, and the Pearl High School shooting.
The Lifetime Movies, formerly known as Lifetime Movie Network (LMN), series of youths who commit acts of murder Killer Kids released the episode Deadly Compulsion depicting Spencer's crimes, first air date: September 3, 2014.
The Investigation Discovery network portrayed Brenda Spencer's crimes in one of the three cases presented on the crime documentary series Deadly Women, episode Thrill Killers, first air date: October 9, 2008.