By Andrew Schein
Lizzie ’07 intends to walk across the stage on crutches to receive her diploma at graduation June 8. A week and a half ago, just sitting up in bed made her nauseous after an attack in which she said a classmate struck her head, face and legs more than 40 times with a hammer.
Lizzie, whose family requested their last name be withheld, was released from the hospital May 18. She attended Prom the next night in a wheelchair and was crowned Prom Queen. Two days later, she attended her Cum Laude induction ceremony.
She wanted to return to school the next day, her sister Katie ’08 said, but sitting in her wheelchair during the Cum Laude ceremony made her feel sick, and she decided not to rush her recovery.
When Katie first saw her sister at the hospital after the attack, Lizzie had not yet been cleaned up. Her shirt was heavy with blood from head wounds, and the blood dripped down onto her skirt.
Katie was just glad to know that her sister was alive.
“My dad told me she had been attacked and was OK,” Katie said. “But he also said she had been hit multiple times on the head. My dad works in the ER, and I hear the bad stories. And Lizzie had head trauma.”
“She looked OK because she was lucid,” Katie said. “If she had been unconscious, I don’t think I would have been able to handle it.”
After she finished her Advanced Placement Physics exam late in the afternoon of Monday, May 14, Lizzie saw a male student who looked forlorn, according to the account her mother, Dr. Barbara Hayden, heard her give to Los Angeles Police Department officers. He told her he was waiting for a friend and asked her to go to Jamba Juice with him. He said nothing scary, only that he was bummed out, presumably about the AP exam, finals or graduation, Hayden said.
Lizzie did not know the boy very well, her mother said. About a year and a half before, the boy had invited her to a movie. Hayden said that Lizzie had accepted, but he had never followed up.
“They had no relationship at all except that she said ‘hello’ to him now and then and had once or twice sat down at the table and talked to him,” Hayden said.
At Jamba Juice, the classmates talked casually. Lizzie noticed nothing strange until they re-entered the car, when the boy took a backpack out of the back of the car and placed it between his legs.
“That struck her as being a very odd maneuver, something that didn’t make sense,” Hayden said.
Lizzie registered a change in the boy’s attitude. He seemed suddenly anxious. Then, he failed to drive back to school, turning onto Van Noord instead.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m looking for a place to mail something,” he said.
“There isn’t a mailbox up here,” she said.
He parked and told her that he had been considering suicide.
“Let’s go back to Harvard-Westlake and talk to counselors there,” Lizzie said. “There are people there who can help you. I’ll stay with you until you get help. Let’s deal with it. I’ll be with you.”
“No, that’s not the way it’s going to play out,” he said. Hayden is unsure of the exact wording of the boy’s next sentence. She thinks he said, “I’m thinking of killing myself, and I’m not planning on doing it alone.”
Lizzie took the boy’s words to mean that he was planning to kill himself and kill her as well. Fearing that the bag at the boy’s feet could contain a weapon, she reached for it, screaming at him and trying to take it from his hands. In the commotion, he pulled out a hammer. He beat her over the head, on the side of the head, and on the face, Hayden said. Lizzie pushed her attacker against the driver’s side door with her legs, sacrificing them to save her head, her mother said. He battered her legs and broke her tibia.
At that point, he exited the car, went to the opposite side, opened the door, grabbed her by the hair, and resumed striking her head, Lizzie told police.
She was struck on places on the head where the skull is thin, Hayden said. Hayden believes that her daughter’s attacker probably knew where to hit to maximize the likelihood of death.
As Hayden told the story, she explained that, to convey the violence of the event, she needed to relate the facts in graphic detail.
“It’s not, ‘Oh, some guy was kind of depressed, and he was going to commit suicide and had some little rageful outburst, you know, like somebody who just loses it and hits somebody,'” she said. “No, this was a deliberate attack.”
The hammer broke, and he tried to strangle her. Somehow, one of his fingers slipped into her mouth.
“She bit it as hard as she could with everything she had, knowing that this was all that she was going to be able to do to save herself,” Hayden said.
The attacker mumbled something. Lizzie thinks he may have said, “I’m sorry.”
“OK, I’m done now,” he said. He returned to his car and drove away.
She tried to walk, but her leg gave way, and she fell to the ground. A neighbor who had seen the beating from a window called the police.
The Family Reacts
The call was from his daughter’s cell phone, but it was an older woman on the line.
“I have your daughter here,” she said. “She’s bleeding.” The caller dropped the phone, but Lizzie’s father could hear paramedics in the background. David, an Emergency Room physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, learned that Lizzie was being taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank. He tried to reroute the ambulance to Cedars, Hayden said, but traffic was too heavy and their daughter’s condition too critical to go anywhere but the closest hospital. He drove to St. Joseph’s to see his daughter.
“She had a football head and a hematoma over the middle meningeal artery,” Hayden said. “If you know anatomy, you knew enough to be scared to death.”
David called his younger daughter, Katie, at about 6 p.m. She thought he was calling because she was late coming home.
“No, Katie, I need to know where you are,” he said.
He told her Lizzie had been attacked and the assailant had not been found. He wanted to make sure she was safe.
“I thought it couldn’t be possible because it didn’t tie together,” Katie said. “Lizzie didn’t have any enemies.”
Katie found herself in a state of shock when she arrived at the hospital. She tried to comfort Lizzie, telling her she loved her.
One of the first things she remembers Lizzie saying was, “I know this sounds kind of martyr-y, but I’m glad it happened to me and not anyone else.”
As the doctors cut off Lizzie’s clothes, Katie tried to make a joke.
“Oh, that was a good shirt, too bad we’ll have to get you another one,” she said.
Their father received the cell phone call at 5:30 p.m. His wife was not informed until three hours later.
Hayden, a plastic surgeon at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, had 16 hours of surgery booked. She had started at 6:30 a.m. and was two-thirds of the way through her last patient.
Dr. Grant Stevens (Cat ’07) called her in the operating room.
“Barbara, I just heard about your daughter, and I’m wondering if there’s anything I can do to help,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” Hayden asked.
Her hands were gloved, her patient cut open in front of her.
“She’s had a fight with a student,” Stevens said. “I think you need to get in touch with somebody.”
Hayden imagined Lizzie in a fight.
“Hair flying?” Hayden asked. “Purses?”
She called her husband.
“She’s been brutally attacked,” he said. “I think she’s going to live. She has a lot of head trauma, but there doesn’t appear to be any skull fractures, and there’s no brain damage. But she’s lost a lot of blood, and her leg is badly broken, and I don’t know. I think she’ll be OK, but I don’t know.”
They spent the first night worried that a blood vessel would burst in their daughter’s brain. The next day, she underwent surgery to have rods and pins inserted into her fractured leg.
Physically, Lizzie is progressing well, her sister said.
“Every day, when I come home she’s re-coordinating her muscle movement,” Katie said. “Now she can twitch her muscles and pull her toes up.”
May 21, the day of the Cum Laude assembly, was the first day that Lizzie ascended the stairs to her house with the help of crutches and her father’s stabilizing hold. Before that climb, she needed a stretcher to get up the stairs.
That night, her parents removed the stitches from her scalp. She was still taking painkillers for the pain.
Psychologically, Katie is not sure whether her sister has had enough time to let the attack register. In time, she believes her sister will move forward.
The School Community Responds
As the attack was taking place, Peer Support was in session on the school campus less than a block away. A neighbor reported to a Harvard-Westlake security guard that a student was being sought in an attack on a classmate nearby.
Unsupervised students were directed to Chalmers West for the first-ever lockdown in Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra’s 27-year career at the school. Head Prefect Sammy McGowan ’07 and Director of Student Affairs Jordan Church rushed from classroom to classroom at around 6 p.m. Monday evening, canceling Peer Support and ushering students to Chalmers West, Chaplain Father J. Young said.
With every Peer Support group accounted for in Chalmers, Young explained the situation. A senior boy reportedly had beaten a senior girl, and an ambulance was taking her to a hospital. Police had not caught the alleged perpetrator, Young said. Because it was possible he was still at large and might walk into Chalmers, Young revealed the suspect’s identity to assembled students. The name of the victim was withheld at the time.
“I don’t feel comfortable quite yet letting you go home, but I won’t keep you here forever,” Young said. “Take good care of each other.”
Young believed that sending McGowan and Church was more expedient than using the lock-down alarm. Moreover, students might have interpreted such an alarm to mean that they were to stay in separate rooms and lock the doors, Salamandra said. He said plans are being drawn up to install an intercom system sometime in the future.
Students eventually left in twos and threes or called parents to pick them up. Young told students to tell their Peer Support group leaders when they left.
School administrators continued to rely on student-run groups throughout the week. After Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts sent an e-mail informing parents and students of the attack and announcing an all-school assembly at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, student government leaders formed an informal phone tree to spread the word. Head Prefects McGowan and Hailey Orr ’07 spoke at an all-school assembly Tuesday. Peer Support leaders manned a “break room” in the third floor Chalmers conference room in which students could take a break from classes to make cards for the victim and discuss the situation.
At the assembly, Huybrechts read aloud a Daily News account. McGowan, Orr, Huybrechts and President Thomas C. Hudnut spoke of the need to stick together as a community. Young called the school a “caring community.” Hudnut said he would go further, calling the school a “loving family.”
Hudnut recommended that students avoid talking to the media. Despite Hudnut’s advice, one student gave a video interview to CBS, the only one circulating online in the next few days.
Citing privacy concerns, Salamandra said that the identity of the suspected assailant was not being announced, even though many students knew who he was.
At an impromptu senior assembly, Nuriel Moghavem ’07, a senior prefect, encouraged his fellow students to write notes to the victim and paste them on her car, where pens and heart-shaped Post-its were available.
“Her car is still at school, and I think it would be a nice surprise for her to come back and not be able to see her car,” Moghavem said. He laughed, as did the audience. By the end of the day, the car’s paint job was almost totally covered by a coat of Post-its.
Sophomore prefect Adam Rothman ’09 created a Facebook group called “Lizzie, we’re thinking of you!” that linked to news articles and videos online. More than 400 students joined.
Scores of students, teachers and administrators visited Lizzie at the hospital.
Cards, dozens of bouquets of flowers, fruit, cookies and other gifts filled the hospital room, Brian Kurtzman ’08 said.
“It has helped her tremendously to have students come and tell her, ‘Come on Liz, let’s go,’ “ Hayden said. “People coming in and wanting to watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and wanting to hang out in the room even when she couldn’t keep her eyes open. It made her feel like … she wasn’t cut off.”
The attention has been a mixed blessing.
When she was named Prom Queen, she was “horrified in a good way,” Katie said. Lizzie felt that the elected King and Queen should receive the honor.
She received a standing ovation when her name was announced at the Cum Laude assembly.
“The sense of community is wonderful, but I know Liz, and I think the attention is awkward, not something she loves,” her sister said.
When she came back to school on May 21, Katie was overwhelmed by well-wishers and those with questions.
“They’re thoughtful, or they try to be thoughtful, but every time you hear it, it brings back all the images in your head of what it really was to you,” she said.
Four extra security guards and 13 police officers offered extra security on Tuesday on the Upper School campus, and security was also ramped up on the Middle School campus, Head of Security Kevin Giberson said. Police officers were also outside the suspect’s house. Seniors were allowed to go off campus only with their parents’ permission and the promise that they would not return to school.
With the extra guards manning entrances to the school, Giberson walked around the quad, making sure students felt comfortable at school.
The school might not have needed the extra protection had the whereabouts of the attacker been known. Police believed he might still be at large.
In fact, the suspect had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital on Monday night, his attorney, Patrick Smith, told newspaper reporters.
On Thursday, May 17, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office filed felony charges, including attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. On May 18, a juvenile court judge denied the prosecutor’s request for a warrant to remove the boy from the psychiatric hospital. If convicted, the boy could face a range of penalties, from probation to confinement in the California Youth Authority system until age 25, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Hayden worries that if people see her daughter as a hero for saving her attacker, she will owe that status to him.
“If she ever becomes profoundly angry for the degree of violence that was inflicted on her, she’s conflicted,” Hayden said. “How could she be angry at the man that made her a hero? And if she says, ‘I’m not a hero, I hate [him] because he tried to kill me,’ then does she lose the affections of all the people that have helped her put herself back together?”
Hayden also worries that students will be inspired to reach out to the mentally ill even though they have no psychiatric training.
“That’s extremely dangerous, like ‘Come on kids, feed the tigers. Put your hand in the cage.’ It’s insane to me,” she said.
Hayden was also frustrated by “this tendency to talk about humor,” as if Lizzie were fine, sitting up in bed, smiling, telling jokes. Humor is a method people use to deal with a distressing event, Hayden said.
“It disturbs me when people minimize the violent act,” she said. “It will not help her get better. She will need to realize that she knows that she fought for her life.”
Hayden sees her daughter as heroic for fighting off her attacker and for fighting to get her life back after the attack.
When Lizzie told her mother that she still wanted to go to her prom, Hayden saw the request as frivolous, telling her that she thought it unlikely that someone who had “been beaten around the head and gotten a concussion” would be able to attend.
“Mom, you’e bursting my bubble,” Lizzie said.
Hayden realized that her daughter was trying to put a degree of normality back into her life, and that prom symbolized more than a dance.
“It’s important because, for her, it’s a celebration of the fact that she’s alive, and she has her life back, and she’s not about to let this guy steal it from her,” Hayden said. “Prom isn’t a prom. It’s a celebration of being alive.”
Administrators said the school dealt with the situation in a way similar to how they have dealt with other serious issues in the past, calling an all-school assembly, creating a break room, giving students permission to miss class, and asking teachers to make a special effort to be sympathetic to those who might be in need.
“Unfortunately, we have experience dealing with crises,” Young said. “All those things are part of a system we’ve come to rely on.”
Rabbi Emily Feigenson coordinated the making of a “healing scarf,” a silk cloth on which people wrote “happy thoughts” that the victim could place over her bed, Young said.
Sammi Wyman ’07 and Lauren Rose ’07 videotaped classmates and teachers wishing the victim well.
“One of the horrible things about something like this is you feel like you’ve been stripped of any power, and just the act of signing a card or going to the hospital re-empowers you,” Young said. “All the little things, like the Post-it notes, they help a community heal.”