MATTOON — The ex-girlfriend of a student convicted of firing a gun last year in the Mattoon High School cafeteria, injuring one, said she's being harassed because of her connections with the teen gunman.
"They acted like because I supported Josiah, that I am going to be the next school shooter and I am a bad person," said Aleesia Deaton, 15, who, with the permission of her parents, spoke to the JG-TC about the challenges she says she faces.
Deaton was in a relationship with Josiah Lyons, now 15, who fired a gun Sept. 20, 2017, at others in the cafeteria that day. One student was injured, and the shooting sent hundreds of students and staff running in fear from the building, prompting a large law enforcement response and sending shock waves through the community.
A prayer vigil was held the night of the shooting, and #MattoonStrong became a community mantra. The incident gained national attention.
But Deaton said that what happened that day was just as much a shock to her and to Lyons' other friends and family as it was to anyone else.
In court testimony, it was reported that Lyons brought a gun to the MHS cafeteria with the intention of shooting "everyone." Lyons had the gun pointed at a student's head and "barely missed" when he fired as a teacher grabbed him, testimony indicated. After the first shot hit a student, seven other shots were fired, mostly into the cafeteria ceiling.
Since then, Lyons has admitted and was sentenced on charges related to the shooting. He was sentenced to juvenile detention with the possibility of a 25-year term in adult prison if he violates conditions of his juvenile sentence.
The incident became part of an American epidemic of school shootings in recent years.
Since the shooting, family members and friends of Lyons have conducted anti-bullying campaigns, including use of anti-bullying-themed bracelets and yard signs.
But court testimony indicated that Mattoon police found no evidence that bullying was a reason for this school shooting.
Mattoon police Chief Jason Taylor in court mentioned the bullying allegations while addressing the shooting's costs, not only financially but to the community's psyche. Police interviewed more than 250 MHS students about Lyons and the shooting and concluded the bullying allegation "does not hold water," Taylor said.
Instead, he said in court, it happened because "that kid's got problems," referring to Lyons. Testimony from Lawrence Jeckel, a psychiatrist who examined Lyons, included similar reasoning. Jeckel diagnosed a defiance disorder and other conditions and also said Lyons was bullied but had acted as a bully himself.
Testimony from the father of the boy who was shot addressed the bullying claims.
"This was apparently somehow supposed to justify his actions," the father said. "This is not a gun issue, this is not a bullying issue. This is you, Josiah. You became the biggest bully in that school."
In court, the father told Lyons he held "no ill will," though, and he hoped Lyons can "make things right."
School district responds
The school district has worked to address the emotions of the students following the shooting. Mattoon Superintendent Larry Lilly said since the school board directed it, the administration has been making efforts to tackle issues of social-emotional growth of its students in order to change any negative culture, however big or small, in the schools.
This has cropped up in both public and private aspects of school. Social-emotional learning has been further integrated into the curriculum, and activities in and out of school have been focused on unity. Lilly said the school staffs have been working extensively to teach students skills to better get along, to be a well-rounded person.
Deaton said bullying is evident and occurs on school grounds, but she has seen the school take an active approach toward tackling bullying, which is an issue that had been brought to the forefront of the conversation after it was claimed the shooting was a result of bullying.
Most recently, Deaton, who still attends MHS, spoke out about the negative response she and Lyons' family have gotten in the wake of the shooting.
Deaton said she and Lyons had been an "on and off" couple since fourth grade, and at the time of the shooting they hadn’t been speaking to one another all of September.
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While they were broken up when the incident occurred, Deaton has stayed supportive of him as a person -- while not supportive of his actions on Sept. 20 -- and that is where conflict arose.
"When Josiah brought the gun to school, the bullying has gotten worse," she said of her experiences.
The school district responded to the shooting with an energized interest in taking on the social-emotional needs of its students, and, simply put, teaching students to get along and accept one another. Still, Deaton said she has not felt this acceptance.
For Deaton, the shooting, or more specifically her support of Lyons, opened her up to a cold shoulder from classmates and the broader community. Deaton said she had never felt bullying was a major issue in her life. Then with the pull of a trigger, she became a pariah to these individuals, she said.
She said she has received a cold shoulder manifested in the form of rejection of one-time friends and dismissal from others. Other times, though, people would directly point to her as the next shooter, whether through social media or even in person on rare occasions.
"I still to this day don't feel welcomed at Mattoon High School," Deaton said, although she doesn't necessarily blame school administration for this feeling but individual students and adults outside of MHS. "I just got told by one of my peers on Facebook ... that students are still afraid of me and that they have the right to think I am going to bring a gun to school or harm somebody because of Josiah and because I am his ex-girlfriend."
Deaton said what Lyons did affect her negatively, too.
"I was there when (the shooting) happened, and I was just as scared as everyone else," she said.
That day, and beyond
Deaton was taking a test at the time of the shooting. When the first shot rang out, she thought she might die. Barricaded in her classroom, huddled in a corner with a book in hand ready to throw, she was ready for a shooter going door to door. In her mind, the shooter was a masked man who had come into the school -- not Lyons.
"I would never think that Josiah -- he was just a sweet kid. He was a lover. He had a big heart," Deaton said. "I never thought that he would ever do something like that."
Beyond the courts, judgment of Lyons spread throughout social media, but Deaton did not expect this judgment would extend to her for simply supporting him as a person. For her, support for the person and disgust for the act he committed did not need to be mutually exclusive feelings. Deaton was terrified that Sept. 20, but she said it would not bar her from supporting someone she had known for most of her life.
"I have been supporting him because we basically grew up together," she said. "I mean Josiah and I starting dating in like fourth grade. He was there for me when my parents got divorced. I was there for him when his parents got divorced. He has been my best friend since we were little kids, and I am not going to throw him away because he messed up."
Lyons would have done more damage had teacher Angela McQueen not stepped in. McQueen, who was on supervision duty in the cafeteria at the time, struggled with Lyons for the gun before the situation could become more serious.
Had the shooting turned more fatal, Deaton conceded she probably would not be as supportive of Lyons.
"It’d be heartbreaking for me to experience that trauma and still be able to say I care about him if his plans were successful," she said. "But thankfully, there were certain teachers that made that not happen."
Deaton keeps in contact with Lyons through letters and phone conversations. She also keeps in contact with his family, who she said has been receiving similar responses as she has from the community.
Deaton said the Lyons family has had "no bullying" signs taken from their yard and harassing messages sent to them online as well. Josiah's mother, Kim Lyons, confirmed Deaton's account of these incidents.
Deaton sees a need for change in regard to the conversation related to Lyons and his actions and calls for people to focus on themselves outside of attacking his family and friends.
"If we would've known that Josiah could do something so tragic, we all would have tried to stop it," she said. "I feel like the community should just take a look and say 'the kid messed up, but we are not going to judge everyone that has ever cared about him for caring about him still.'"