Ebony Shelley sits in a plastic chair, her state-issued black tennis shoes swinging over a cold floor.
Here, there’s no lush carpet, giant screen TV or a place to bake chocolate chip cookies for her grandmother.
She stares at concrete walls, contemplating why the very thing she thought would protect her ended up costing her.
Eleven months ago, the 16-year-old hid a loaded .38-caliber handgun in a blue bag and carried it into Howard High School.
A football player who had confronted her the day before would see it, she figured, and leave her alone.
“I didn’t plan to do nothing with it,” Ebony says. “I wish I would have kept that gun up under that sofa, went to school and came back home.
“It didn’t happen that way.”
Her home now is behind iron gates topped with barbed wire. She is one of 88 teen girls sentenced to the state’s only long-term female juvenile detention center, located in Macon.
With her mother’s permission and state Department of Juvenile Justice access, The Telegraph spent a day with Ebony Shelley at the Macon Regional Youth Development Campus, where she will be held until February.
What follows are her thoughts — in her own words — about what happened that November day when she carried a gun to school, and the consequences that followed.
Her former principal, her mother, the YDC director and the prosecutor in the case also share their perspectives about that day, and a national gun safety expert addresses the problem.
Ebony Shelley, at the Macon YDC
I used to love school when I was little.
I went to a lot of elementary schools — Bernd, L.H. Williams, Lane, Riley and some schools in Atlanta.
The only middle school (I attended was) Howard, then alternative school for fighting.
When I got in middle school about sixth, seventh grade, science and social studies, I (struggled). The work was getting harder and harder. I hated going.
When I became a freshman, I said I needed to pay attention to my work.
I don’t see (guns) often, but where we was living, there was a lot of shootings and breaking into people’s houses.
We had girls, no boys. (Our) gun was for safety.
I don’t know why other people took them. I took it to protect myself.
The previous day ... me and some girls walked to the bus and (another) girl was going around saying me and some other girls were planning to jump on her. She was going around telling her brother we were going to jump on her. That day when we were going to the bus, he came up to me and he put his hand in my face.
I got home. My mom asked me what was wrong. I wouldn’t tell her. So after that she kept asking me because she knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t talking.
(Finally) while I was telling her, the teacher called to tell her I was failing one of my classes, and (my mom) told the teacher (what he did).
She told me to leave it alone, but I wasn’t thinking about that.
The next morning I found the gun up under the sofa, so I took it to school, but I wasn’t planning on doing nothing with it.
I took it because I was going to let him see it so he would leave me alone. I thought oh, what if I show it to (him), maybe he won’t put his hands on me no more.
He is a famous football player at school. They weren’t going to do nothing. They didn’t do nothing when he got in a fight with another boy.
I had it in a blue bag. After that we put it in another girl’s locker, and somebody snitched.
I just remember not being in my class 10 minutes and someone went in and snitched. I was in the office.
I thought I was going to show the gun to him and go home. It didn’t happen that way.
I got handcuffed when (I was) about to go to the RYDC. I was angry. I mean there was nothing I could do, it done happened.
I should have just let (my principal) take over.
I had to spend my sweet 16 here. I missed that big ol’ party I could have had.
Sometimes (my sisters come see me). I wrote them. They wrote back. When I talk to them on the phone, they say “Ebony, we miss you.”
Who do I blame? Her. If not for her going around saying me and my friend we were supposed to jump on her, he would not have put his hand on me, and that morning I would not have found the gun and took it to school.
There is no best part of it, not to me.
I have to sit here in this detention center without my family.
I would probably be at my grandma’s house having fun, making them laugh.
I would be going into 11th.
I can’t go to no more schools in Georgia.
I can’t get in trouble, because I don’t want to end up back here.
Don’t take that gun to school. It’s not your place.
Karen Yarbrough, former principal of Howard High
I never tolerated bullying in my building. If I knew it was taking place, I dealt with it.
You’d be surprised how many parents, when their child says a student hit them, says to hit back. You’d be surprised that parents teach them the wrong way to deal with it. That’s one problem. The other is the child’s perception they are being bullied, but they are not.
They need to be taught how to react to things, some conflict resolution skills. They need to trust adults to respond to situations. They react the way they do because they want to be the tough guy.
She never came to us and told us there was a problem. She went home and decided to bring a gun to school.
It happened at 7:30 a.m., then we were in lockdown.
A teacher and a child came to the office. The girl said a student had a gun and she had seen it. She described where it was.
While moving back to the classroom (from the cafeteria that morning), I starting calling for reinforcement, coaches and my campus police officer.
They got to my office, then they headed to intercept the girl to get the gun.
They escorted her to the office, and we were calling downtown.
She didn’t admit to it right then. We had to get it out of her.
It took five or 10 minutes to get to the point we knew where it was and retrieve it from the locker.
I was thinking I was going to take care of my kids, to get it in my possession as quickly as I could.
We had lunches taken to the classroom. We wanted to keep the school as contained as much as possible.
She had already shown it that morning to some girls, but I don’t think she was going to use it, but pass it off to someone.
She was overreacting. He tapped her in the head to say leave my sister alone. It wasn’t like he hit her.
She should have told somebody.
I didn’t know about it until (the gun) incident.
An investigation was conducted and we got the facts. Everything is documented.
I think their reality is skewed by what they see on TV and on movies and in rap music, that media presents them with a skewed perception on how to react, to take things in their own hands and that they can be successful at it.
I’ve thought often what could have happened.
Shiketa Smith, the mother
The school called at 8 that morning. “This is Ms. Yarbrough. Ebony is in the office because she brought a loaded gun to school.”
I said, “What, she took it for real?”
I found the gun in the attic of our house. I kept it for safety.
I pulled up to Flash Foods. There was a guy at the door. He looked up and pointed a gun at me.
Back in September ’97, gangs were bad. I was on Section 8 at that time.
I was in a drive-by on Burdell Avenue. A guy (in the car) was shot in the arm.
Then when we lived on Napier Avenue, our neighbor had her house broke into.
You can’t trust nobody.
As a single mom, wherever I slept, (the gun) slept.
If I’m at work, I wanted her to know where it was.
I kept it in the bedroom and normally locked the door. That particular night, I slept in the living room and stuck it under the sofa.
She probably don’t know how to use it. It just felt safe.
Maybe I should have kept it in a safe place.
I didn’t think she would do that, period. I can’t predict what a child will do.
This is life and this is what life can throw at you.
I think kids react to what they see. This is nothing they are going by or something somebody is telling these children. It’s what they are seeing in the school system.
If a child is being bullied or what have you, people need to learn to listen to these kids. If you don’t, it’s going to continue to happen and get aggressive, very aggressive.
We need to as parents and as a school system to work together, do something better than what we’re doing.
They’re afraid. Evidently something has happened and nothing is being done about it. They aren’t thinking. They are just afraid and do the first thing that comes to mind. Whatever your instinct is, you’re going to do it.
Now that this situation has happened, if your child comes to you and says this student did this or that to me, we need to get on our jobs and do something right then. Talk to that child and let them know the consequences of their actions. Go to schools and do something about it.
Never once have I said it was right. She was wrong. But she acted on impulse. It just happened so fast.
Mike Smith, assistant district attorney
She said she was being bullied.
The brother of a girl said not to mess with his sister. He pushed his fingers on her head to push her away.
She said she felt threatened and wanted to scare him away with (the gun.)
A lot of them say someone is bullying them, but they don’t tell the teachers, campus police or anyone.
Out of about every 100 cases, two have told (an authority figure) beforehand.
I hear that all the time and initially roll it off my shoulder until I see they did something about it.
Sometimes judges will use that as a mitigating factor (before sentencing them.)
Anytime you have a gun, you have to serve one to five years at the YDC if the judge imposes it.
I try to give everybody a chance. I look at their history and age. If they are real young, I send them to the Alternative Dispute Resolution Center.
I’ve had them from every school in the system, even in elementary schools.
Most are males. Most in general are black. Occasionally I will have a girl or two.
I don’t know the motivation. I just know we have more kids on probation ... No. 1 in the state for adult crime per capita.
We have a bunch of them just like we have a bunch of the other stuff.
We have parents who don’t check their kids, (kids) who glorify crimes, gangs, the lifestyle and the occasional kid who says they just think it’s cool, and then kids who say they are being bullied — but a lot of times they are the bully.
Kenneth Trump, national school safety expert
It’s unrealistic to think in high school that you are not going to have some cases of weapons, drugs and other public safety issues.
People have to realize schools are small towns.
If you have a high school of 1,500 or 2,000, there are townships that are smaller than that. You wouldn’t expect that town to be 100 percent drug or gun free.
While there are exceptions, very often we find that guns brought in come from the home or a family member versus kids buying them off the street, or gang stuff.
If you have a gun in the house ... have those conversations with kids.
(Why do they bring them?) I think it varies. At younger ages in elementary school, there is a lot for flash or show, impressing their peers and less of an intention to shoot someone, versus at the secondary level where it’s more of a protection issue, intimidation, status and creating some fear among individuals or something more specific, harm of others.
I think increasingly since bullying is a topic, it’s a quick defense.
Some are victimized who bring them, but at the same time we need to investigate that claim so it won’t be used for a defense from the start instead of someone making a poor decision.
There are other choices to make instead of turning toward a weapon.
While none of us want to be insensitive or ignore the fact that some cases were bullying victims and that comes into play, we need to be very cautious not to create a climate that it is a first defense ... those looking for a way to justify it legally.
There has to be consequences. The vast majority of kids know that and that it is a poor choice.
Debbie Blasingame, Macon YDC director
For all the offenses that kids come here for, it centers around poor social skills, lack of how do you handle yourself once you get angry, those kinds of issues which lead to the aggravated assaults, taking guns to school, simple battery, which is basically the charges most of the kids are here for.
I don’t want to blame it all on single parent households, because we do have kids here that do have both parents in the household. I think the kids have too much idle time. We tend to have more incidents (here) if the kids have too much idle time on their hands. But, if we provide them with structured activities and things to keep them busy, our incident rates are down.
Parental involvement and doing things with the kids and not leaving them unsupervised so much would help with the situation.
We still cater to them to get their GED or high school diploma. It doesn’t prevent that part of it.
They can still go on to college. But when classified as a designated felon, it gets tougher.
We’ve had a lot of success stories, kids go on and go to college, get good jobs and they write back. So we know about those kids. Of course sometimes they do (commit other crimes and) come back.
The confinement part is the consequence. You’re giving up being around your true friends. You’re giving up being able to be home with your parents to build that relationship. It’s your teen years.
I don’t want to say we’re strangers to her, but we are strangers to a large extent.
You can’t make your own decision about what time to go to bed, what time to get up in the morning. You’re always having somebody telling you what you need to be doing.
You can’t be on the telephone, texting, riding in a vehicle, going to church. She can’t run out to McDonald’s or Burger King and get her some fries — or just the freedom of walking outside.
When we get them, they are at that age of “I’m invincible.”
What she did was wrong. I think she knows, but I don’t know the depth of how serious.
Somebody could have been shot or somebody been killed. It may stop with the fact it didn’t happen kind of thing.
I don’t think they have that depth of thinking that this can change my entire life here or I can be incarcerated or my life could be over pretty much if the wrong thing happens.