Ryan McDonald would be 30 this year, if classmate Jamar Siler hadn’t shot him dead in 2008 when they were both 15-year-old sophomores at Central High School. Siler did it early in the morning in the school cafeteria, where students gathered before class. He did it in front of dozens of horrified students and teachers and school security officers. That act of violence lives on in the memories of the Central High School community.
It was probably one of the first things state Rep. Gloria Johnson thought about this spring when she heard there’d been a mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School just a few miles down the road from the Capitol. Johnson was a special education teacher at Central before she ran for office, and she knew Ryan McDonald, a funny, friendly, troubled adolescent who’d already experienced way too many hard times. In addition to a constellation of other problems, Ryan suffered from alopecia, a condition that left him bald and made him a target of abuse. Neither he nor Siler was being raised by their parents.
Johnson’s classroom was in a flat-top down the hill from the main building, and she was preparing for the day ahead when a wave of hysterical, horrified students came pelting down the hill looking for safety. She has shared her memories of that terrible morning many times over the years, and although I’ve never heard her say it in so many words, I strongly suspect that losing a student to gun violence was one of the factors that nudged her to run for office.
Rising country music star Kelsea Ballerini was there, too. She was Ryan’s classmate, although they didn’t know each other, which is not unusual in a big school like Central. They were both sophomores, and she was there in the cafeteria when he died. She has included a poem about it in her new book of poetry Feel Your Way Through.
It’s titled, “His Name Was Ryan,” and here’s an excerpt:
“His name was Ryan, and he died on the cafeteria floor
From a gunshot wound to the chest
I can’t be too sure, but I think I saw him
Take his last breath
We were both 15
That day, we went from strangers to lifelong friends
I think about him often, who he could have been …”
I’ve thought about him often, too, and have written a lot about this shooting, including some angry reporting on the boorish behavior of certain elected officials like the one who blurted out Ryan’s name on the radio before his family had been informed that he had died. I’m not kidding. That’s how some of his family members were informed of his death – by a stranger on the car radio while they were racing to the UT Medical Center to find out what was happening. Over the next few days I had several conversations with Ryan’s uncle, Roger McDonald, a thoughtful, well-spoken man who worked for UT and was active in the campus workers’ union. His grace left a lasting impression on me.
Another lasting impression came a few weeks later when I covered a transfer hearing in juvenile court, where Judge Tim Irwin ruled that the shooter, Jamar Siler, would be tried as an adult. I heard quite a lot about Jamar’s horrific childhood in that courtroom and remember Irwin saying that our system had failed this boy at every turn. Jamar was still an infant when he was removed from his birth family, placed in foster care and eventually adopted. He had no choice in the matter, and he showed no emotion in the courtroom.
Later, I would read that his adopted sister was also facing a murder charge and was on the lam when Jamar fired that gun.
His court-appointed lawyer had attempted to mount a defense based on a presumption that Jamar suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome but couldn’t persuade the state to foot the bill to fly the one recognized expert in fetal alcohol syndrome-related crime to Knoxville from the west coast to testify. Running out of options and facing the prospect of a first-degree murder conviction carrying a mandatory life sentence if Jamar were found guilty (there were dozens of eyewitnesses), his lawyer recommended that he take the plea deal that the state had offered – plead guilty to second degree murder and get a 30-year sentence. Siler later appealed the verdict, claiming ineffective counsel.
I looked up Jamar Siler in the Tennessee Department of Corrections felony offender register. He turned 30 last month at Trousdale Turner Detention Center, which means that he has now spent half his life behind bars. He has 11 more to go before his September 20, 2034, release date. He is apparently not eligible for parole.
Something I saw at Jamar’s transfer hearing has haunted me all these years since. Two older teenagers, both of mixed-race and both astonishingly beautiful, sat in the courtroom a couple of rows behind me. They were clearly siblings, and the young woman was struggling to keep her composure while her brother attempted to console her. He put his arm around her shoulders and sat stony-faced while the judge indicted the foster care system. I looked at Jamar, sitting impassively next to his lawyer. I looked back at the young couple.
After it was over, the young woman ducked into the restroom to compose herself. The young man waited for her out in the hall. I took a deep breath and approached him.
“Jamar’s your little brother, right?”
I told him how sorry I was, and repeated Judge Irwin’s observation:
“He never had a chance.”
He nodded in agreement. It felt wrong to intrude, so I wished them well and left them alone.
Later, though, I did some checking and discovered that the two of them had been adopted by a family who loved them and raised them both. I checked out the family Facebook page and found happy milestones memorialized. Normal stuff – little kid accomplishments, high school athletics and proms, college. Pride. Love. Family.
Jamar had no such luck.
In the end, Ryan McDonald paid the ultimate price and Jamar Siler forfeited his freedom, such as it was. It took Central High School years to recover.
And although Tennessee’s foster care system may have reached the crisis point over the past year, with no legislative fixes on the horizon (guess they’re too busy pursuing drag queens and pronouns and whoring for gun lobby money in Nashville to bother with trivial matters like how to recruit good foster parents for children in state custody), it’s been broken for a long, long time.
And it’s kids who pay the price.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.