The Trigger Effect
The 911 caller’s voice was calm, almost cheerful.
“Hey, I’m up at West Village,” the person said, referring to a cluster of buildings at the Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech. “It looks like there’s somebody, like, skulking around outside. It looks like he’s got—he’s got a knife in his hand. I think he might have a gun on his hip.”
It was 11:17 p.m. on September 16, 2017, a humid Saturday night. The university had resumed classes for the fall semester less than a month prior. A report of a potential gunman on Georgia Tech’s campus, situated in the heart of Atlanta, triggered emergency texts and tweets urging students to find shelter. Campus police were dispatched to West Village, located less than a third of a mile from their headquarters, to assess the situation. Was there really an armed man? If so, did he intend to harm himself or someone else? In the era of school shootings, tragedy that feels at once familiar and devastating is always just a trigger pull away.
“It looks like he might be drunk or something,” the 911 caller said, trying to provide a clear picture of the suspicious man. “He’s got long blond hair, white T-shirt, jeans.”
The dispatcher repeated the description and noted it in his records. Then he asked for the caller’s name, in case the police needed it.
“Uh, sure,” the caller said. “Scott Schultz.”
At that moment, Cat Monden was dashing around West Village, searching for her best friend, Scout. A bespectacled computer-engineering major, Scout had shown up at Monden’s door earlier that night, a green and white shoebox in hand. “Consider it a belated birthday present,” Monden heard Scout say, before her friend shoved the box into her hands and walked away without another word.
After closing the door, Monden went back to the couch, where she and another friend had settled in for the night to watch television. Monden thought it odd that Scout would come and go so abruptly. Even odder was what was inside the shoebox—all of Scout’s Magic: The Gathering cards, bearing images of fantastical wizards, beasts, and weaponry. Any obsessive player of the game, which both Monden and Scout were, knows that the cards are expensive and can take years to collect. Giving them away is tantamount to announcing that you’ll never play again.
There was something else in the box—a note to Monden. It thanked her for being the best friend Scout had ever had.
Monden and Scout had found each other in Georgia Tech’s tightly knit community of LGBTQ students. Monden was a petite black transgender woman, and Scout was white, bisexual, intersex, and nonbinary—that is, gendered neither male nor female and using the pronouns they and them. Monden and Scout were involved in Georgia Tech’s Pride Alliance. By 2017, Scout was in their second year as president of the student advocacy group. Like many LGBTQ youth, Scout, who was 21, struggled with mental-health issues, including thoughts of suicide. Though they boasted a 3.9 GPA and the admiration of fellow students committed to progressive activism, Scout had tried to kill themself at least once before.
The note in the shoebox wasn’t explicit, but Monden recognized it as a cry for help. She sprang off the couch and ran out into the hallway, leaving her keys in the apartment as she went.
After descending the building’s main stairway, her first stop was Scout’s apartment, located on the first floor. Monden banged furiously on the door until she was greeted by a bewildered roommate. Together they went into Scout’s room; it was empty. Another roommate walked into the common area and asked what was going on. “We can’t find Scout,” Monden said.
The trio hurried out of the apartment, planning to search West Village and beyond, if necessary. They spotted blue lights bouncing off nearby walls—the beams of police cruisers’ emergency lights. A fellow student warned them away from Eighth Street, which ran in front of the housing complex. The cops were trying to deal with a guy who was walking in the road, carrying a knife.
Several officers from the Georgia Tech Police Department (GTPD) had shown up in response to the 911 call. They spotted the man described to dispatch walking shoeless in front of a parking deck adjacent to a Wing Zone franchise, popular among students craving late-night calories. The man moved slowly, as if dragging his bare feet across the pavement required real effort. His shoulders were hunched and his arms hung limply at his sides. In his right hand, he clutched a small multitool that included a screwdriver and a short blade.
“C’mon, man, drop the knife,” one of the officers shouted. The cops all had their weapons trained on the suspect.
“Shoot me,” the man replied, continuing his measured advance.
“Nobody wants to hurt you, man,” a cop said. “Drop the knife.”
The man seemed unsure what to do. For a few seconds, he sped up his pace. Then he froze before again moving slowly toward the officers. Some of them backed up, giving him room. They kept their guns raised.
By then, Monden was just down the street, watching from the sidewalk in horror. She knew the person the police were trying to subdue. It wasn’t a man—it was Scout.
“Speak,” an officer shouted. Scout was silent. The cops asked for a name. Nothing. The officers ordered Scout not to move. Scout didn’t listen.
Instead, Scout kept walking, getting within 20 feet of one of the cops, a 23-year-old named Tyler Beck. Students peered out of dorm windows, and Monden looked on helplessly. With his colleagues arrayed around him, Beck pulled the trigger of his gun. There was a flash of light, and then a bullet tore into Scout’s body. They fell face forward onto Eighth Street. A video of the moment, captured by an onlooker’s cell phone, shows Scout’s prone body through a veil of leaves hanging from one of the young trees lining the road.
Monden released a mournful, guttural scream. Scout’s roommates grabbed her arms to stop her from running toward her friend, afraid that she, too, would be shot. Monden broke free and bolted at the cops. One of them restrained her. “We should put cuffs on this girl,” she heard another officer say.
Perhaps because Scout’s roommates pleaded with them, insisting that she wasn’t a danger, the police decided not to detain Monden. An ambulance arrived to transport Scout to the hospital. Monden went back to her apartment to get a phone charger, then ran from car to car on Eighth Street, banging on windows and begging through tears for someone to drive her to the ER. Finally, she gave up and sprinted away, heading toward the hospital.
Soon after, a text alert went out to the Georgia Tech community: “There is no longer a threat to campus.”
Monden arrived at the hospital desperate for word of Scout’s condition. Other friends joined her in the ER waiting room, where they huddled together in disbelief. At one point, a stranger with dried blood caked on her shirt approached them. “What happened?” she asked, concern in her voice. “You kids look like somebody died.”
Monden and her friends weren’t sure if someone had, and the doctors wouldn’t tell them. Law enforcement and university administrators milled around the waiting room, but whatever they knew they kept to themselves. Scout’s parents were en route from Lilburn, Georgia, a 30-minute drive from Atlanta. As Scout’s next of kin, they would be updated first.
One by one, Scout’s friends went home to get some sleep, including Monden. By the time she woke up, before dawn, the news was spreading: Scout was dead.
A press release issued at 6:45 a.m. by Georgia Tech’s dean of students described a “sudden and tragic death.” It didn’t mention what had transpired on Eighth Street; it didn’t specify that Scout had been shot by campus police. “We have communicated directly and offered our support and deepest sympathies to Scout’s family,” the release concluded. “At times like these, we are reminded of the importance of coming together in support, understanding, and care for one another.” Two statements issued later the same day, including one from Georgia Tech’s president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson, also omitted salient details. One described Scout’s death as “the result of an incident.” (University officials declined to comment for this story.)
For anyone who knew Scout, the pieces of the puzzle quickly fell into place. Scout had left several notes, including the one in the shoebox. Videos from the confrontation at West Village showed Scout begging the police to shoot. Then there was the 911 call from a seemingly cool and collected bystander. Scout’s last name was Schultz, and Scott was their birth name, the one they’d used before coming out. Scout had placed the emergency call.
Within 48 hours of the shooting, Georgia Tech was engulfed in crisis. Ideological fissures about police brutality, free speech, and gender identity snaked through campus, similar to divisions appearing in communities throughout the United States. In 2017, at least 28 transgender or nonbinary people in the U.S. died in violent incidents; Scout was the third in September alone. Scout’s parents retained a lawyer. “Let’s face it,” their stepfather, Bill Schultz, told me. “I watched Black Lives Matter. This time it was my kid.” Many people at the university, however, felt differently. Scout “was acting as a danger to everyone in the proximity,” a commenter on the Reddit thread r/gatech wrote. “What is this person a victim of? Their own actions? Play stupid games. Win stupid prizes.”
Was Beck to blame for shooting a vulnerable student or commendable for making a tough call about a threat? How exactly should grieving students be allowed to respond to fatal violence? I set out to write this story not so much to answer these questions as to trace their impact, as well as the lingering trauma of Scout’s death. After a flurry of national coverage, the shooting faded from headlines. Yet at Georgia Tech, where I’m an instructor in gender studies and journalism, the event was only beginning to take its toll. LGBTQ students felt it most acutely, and each frustration, indignity, and misunderstanding they experienced added to the burden. For some of these young people, the weight became too intolerable to bear.
What follows is a story of aftermath—of a community forced to navigate the emotional wreckage wrought by a wave of shock, anger, and confusion. Within a few weeks of Scout’s death, several of their friends were arrested. Within three months, two were dead. Now, almost a year after the shooting, the official narrative of the event is still being written. But by whom?
Scout was born in 1995, in Rockville, Maryland, and raised by their mother, Lynne, for the first 18 months of their life. Scout was still a towheaded toddler when Lynne started corresponding online with a defense contractor and Vietnam veteran named Bill Schultz who lived in Southern California. Meeting a romantic interest on the internet was unusual in the late 1990s, but Bill was more comfortable with the virtual world than most people. He’d worked on the development of Darpanet, the precursor to the internet, and gotten his first email address in 1972. Bill and Lynne moved to Iowa together, where they married and had a second child. Scout took Bill’s last name.
Scout was precocious: funny, creative, and a math whiz. Friends of the Schultzes sometimes described Scout as “scary smart.” They were also a perfectionist, always in pursuit of straight A’s, perhaps as a way to maintain a sense of identity and stability as they bounced from school to school. New jobs and subsequent firings or layoffs took the Schultzes to Missouri then on to Kansas. At one point the family had so little money that they lived in a tent in a city park for two weeks. “I was actually relieved, in a way, when Scout got a B,” Lynne said, “so they could see that it’s not the end of the world.”
Scout faced an unusual array of health challenges, including ulcerative colitis and migraines. They also had an anatomical condition called hypospadias, in which the urethral opening is in an atypical position, usually on the underside of the penis. Doctors assured Scout’s mother that hypospadias was merely a urinary issue, but it can also be an indicator that a child is intersex.
As they matured, Scout became an unabashed nerd. They collected Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards and played Minecraft, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering with friends. They also became obsessed with Latin. In high school, which they attended in Georgia after yet another family move, Scout became fluent in the classical language, using it in text messages and teaching their dog to sit on Latin command. Scout also began to experiment with gender presentation, donning flowing gowns and lipstick in school plays.
Scout got a scholarship to Georgia Tech and was so excited to attend that they started early, in the summer of 2014. In many ways, the school was a perfect fit. It has always taken pride in nurturing geeks, from gamers to mathletes. It lacks the party-school atmosphere of other state schools, including the University of Georgia, and only a quarter of its students are involved in Greek life. Students focus on academics almost to a fault. According to a recent university report, “Data from the 2011 National College Health Assessment revealed that 89.9 percent of Georgia Tech students reported they were ‘very stressed’ while the national rate was 52.9 percent.”
Scout thrived academically, and they joined the Pride Alliance, a diverse group that for many members served as a kind of campus family. All students were welcome, no matter their race, gender identity, or sexual orientation, so long as they were committed to inclusion. Georgia Tech’s LGBTQ den mother was a black transgender woman named Kirby Jackson, who sported a short afro and rectangular glasses. She was protective, witty, kind, and candid. “Kirby was really the first person who reached out to me and said, ‘I want to make you feel safe here on campus,’” said Naiki Kaffezakis, a student who is transgender. Jackson founded a transgender support group called T+, which had lean beginnings. “She would sit in a room for a couple hours at a time on a weekly basis,” Kaffezakis said of Jackson, “just in case other people showed up and just in case other people needed support.”
Through the Pride Alliance, Scout came under Jackson’s wing and met fellow LGBTQ students like Kaffezakis, a double major in nuclear engineering and physics. On National Coming Out Day, October 11, of their sophomore year, Scout announced their identity and orientation for the first time. They shaved a beard they’d worn for a while and wore brightly patterned clothing, glad to draw attention to themself.
Scout seemed so happy in their skin that their mom, Lynne, was stunned to get a call from Georgia Tech’s counseling center one day. “Your son tried to hang himself from his bunk bed with a belt,” Lynne recalled the person on the line saying. The belt had snapped; Scout wasn’t injured. Still, their loved ones had missed the signs that they were hurting.
According to a 2014 survey, 45 percent of trans and nonbinary people 18 to 24 have attempted suicide. By the time Scout tried to take their own life, Georgia Tech had identified that it had a suicide problem—and not just among LGBTQ students. According to a survey of students who use the university’s counseling center, the number “who have ever attempted suicide … has steadily increased from 5.9 percent (2014) to 7.1 percent (2015) to 8.5 percent (2016) to 9.5 percent (2017).”
Scout started seeing an on-site counselor, but their family quickly realized that the resources on campus were inadequate. There was just one counselor for roughly every 1,500 students and a cap on the number of sessions (16) that a student could access over their college career. Scout started taking medication and seeing caregivers off campus, covered by their parents’ insurance. “It seemed like Scout got better after a few months,” Lynne recalled.
Scout continued to earn good grades, was elected president of the Pride Alliance, and demonstrated an interest in social justice that extended beyond LGBTQ issues. They got involved with Black Lives Matter and joined a chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. They toyed with anarchist ideas. In the winter of 2017, not long after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Scout cofounded the Progressive Students Alliance (PSA). The group’s first action was marching against the introduction of House Bill 51, intended to prevent universities from preemptively investigating sexual-assault allegations on campus in Title IX hearings. Under the proposed law, suspected felonies, including assaults, would be referred to the local police. Believing that the bill would silence survivors by making them afraid to come forward, PSA students marched from Georgia Tech to the state capitol on March 3, 2017. A few weeks later, the senate tabled the bill.
For every one of Scout’s milestones there was a stressor. The Pride Alliance lost its dedicated space when the school repurposed it and other student groups’ offices for the Greek system to use. The development wasn’t unprecedented: Many of Georgia Tech’s campus groups don’t have offices, including some religious organizations. Still, the loss weighed on the group’s president. Scout “felt the Pride Alliance was more and more disrespected,” Bill Schultz said. “I think Scout took some of the blame for that on themself.” Scout moved the Pride Alliance’s materials into their dorm room. What wouldn’t fit they stowed in their parents’ garage.
Scout also grappled with the euphoria and pain of first love. At a party one night during their junior year, Scout met a slender student from Georgia State University, also located in Atlanta. Dallas Punja was the child of Pakistani immigrants and gender-queer. She was a devoted fan of the web comic Homestuck, about a computer game that accidentally destroys the earth, and the animated show Steven Universe. Scout also loved Steven Universe. The pair spent the party cuddling by a bonfire while Monden danced nearby. Before long, Scout and Punja were dating. Scout even brought Punja home to Lilburn, where Punja greeted Scout’s mom with fake yellow flowers because, she said, they would never die.
Punja wasn’t out to her family and struggled with depression and borderline personality disorder. She’d tried to kill herself twice by taking pills, and she’d once gone to a bridge intending to jump off, changing her mind only at the last moment. Scout tried to quell Punja’s self-loathing.
“feels like i’m repulsive,” Punja messaged Scout once.
“you are Not,” Scout responded. “you are beautiful and I love you sooo much.”
In another message, Scout said, “i’m very tense and anxious. together we can be the splendid combination, like peanut butter and jelly: depression and anxiety.”
Like many young people’s relationships, the flame Scout and Punja shared burned bright and fast. During the summer before Scout’s senior year, they broke up. According to Kaffezakis, however, “Scout was still very much in love with Dallas.”
By the fall semester, the Pride Alliance had been working for almost a year with Tech Ends Suicide Together, a campaign to educate students about warning signs and encourage referrals to the counseling center. In a photo posted on Facebook in support of the initiative, a handful of Pride Alliance members cup their right hands into an O shape, signifying the goal of zero suicides on campus. Scout stands in the back of the group wearing a tie-dyed shirt, shoulder-length hair parted to one side, and a slight, inscrutable smile above a dimpled chin. Close by sits Cat Monden in a Pepsi T-shirt and black cap.
Unlike Scout’s parents, Monden’s father, with whom she’d lived during high school, hadn’t been wholly supportive when she’d told him she was transgender. He’d encouraged her to “try girls first” and refused to let her take hormones. College hadn’t made life easier, exactly; Monden still felt like an outsider. But the Pride Alliance was a home base and safe space, and Scout was her closest confidante. Whether playing fantasy games, decorating a float for Atlanta’s Pride parade, or talking about their dreams for the future, the two were inseparable.
As part of Tech Ends Suicide Together, Monden would have learned that people who want to kill themselves often start giving important possessions away. Nothing, though, could prepare her for receiving Scout’s Magic: The Gathering cards, then watching her best friend die in the street. Her thoughts turned to suicide, too, and she wasn’t alone. “It was almost like a weird game of chicken about who would go through with it first,” Monden said of her friends. “We were all feeling this way but trying to persevere.”
Georgia Tech set up emergency counseling sessions for students, but Monden said she was never contacted individually. “Nobody from Georgia Tech reached out,” said Bailey Becker, the friend Monden was hanging out with the night of the shooting. “That has been an ongoing theme.”
As media coverage of Scout’s death exploded, the Schultzes were troubled by a refrain they heard over and over. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) had been tasked with investigating the shooting, and in a much quoted statement released on Sunday, September 17, the day after the incident, it described Scout as “armed with a knife.” The phrase echoed through local news broadcasts, and in a headline The Chicago Tribune described Scout as a “knife-wielding” student. The Schultzes knew Scout wasn’t violent—not the type of person to carry a knife, much less threaten anyone with it. The evidence was in their favor: The only weapon recovered from the scene was Scout’s multitool, and its blade wasn’t extended.
By Monday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the shooting, Scout’s parents decided to defend their child publicly. Along with their lawyer, L. Chris Stewart, who’d helped represent the family of Walter Scott, the black man shot eight times in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, the Schultzes held a press conference. They were in the midst of a divorce but put up a united front. Bill, a tall, heavyset man with stooped shoulders and long brown hair gathered into a ponytail, wore a gray suit, orange button-down shirt, and wire-rim glasses. Lynne, her eyes moist, wore her strawberry-blond hair draped over her shoulders and the straps of her floral sundress. She looked a lot like Scout.
Stewart dramatically unsheathed a large knife and held it up for the press to see. This, he explained, was not what had been in Scout’s possession. Stewart then displayed a multitool like the one Scout had been holding. Next he unveiled a blown-up photograph of the actual tool, taken by a member of the media who’d seen it lying on the pavement where Scout fell.
Then the Schultzes spoke. Bill described “all the people on campus who loved and respected and adored Scout.” His voice seething with dismay, he asked why the police hadn’t tried harder to deescalate the situation. “Whatever happened, it shouldn’t have ended in a death,” Bill said. When Lynne got to the microphone, she seemed to weigh each word in her mouth, as if afraid of letting one slip out too quickly. “Scout had a very promising future, or would have,” she said. “He—I mean Scout,” Lynne continued, correcting her pronoun usage, “stood up for what they believed in. This is a really big loss for a lot of people.”
She stopped speaking and cast her eyes downward, searching. After a pause she whispered, “I don’t know what else to say.”
People grieved, together and alone. One of Scout’s roommates couldn’t bear to stay in her campus apartment, where everything from the posters on the wall to an alarm clock on a table reminded her of Scout. She slept on a friend’s couch instead. On social media, Dallas Punja, Scout’s ex-partner, wrote, “no one gives a fuck about trans people but trans people,” and “s//cout didn’t approve of me drinking this much but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ they’re dead! so!! who cares what they thought!!! they sure don’t think it anymore!!!!” Punja added, “#i can’t wait till I fucking pass out and stop having s/c/out thoughts.” A makeshift memorial appeared next to a tree on Eighth Street—pictures of Scout, a teddy bear wearing a Georgia Tech T-shirt, bouquets of flowers, cards with messages scrawled inside. “You’re a world changer,” one read. “Rest in Power.”
The PSA organized a campus vigil for Monday night, a few hours after the Schultzes’ press conference. The event was held at the Kessler Campanile, an outdoor amphitheater with a fountain featuring an 80-foot obelisk made of stacked steel discs. The event was supposed to be peaceful and respectful, but Matt Wolfsen, who cofounded the PSA with Scout, was nervous. He knew that Scout had friends in Atlanta’s anarchist and anti-fascist (antifa) circles, whose approach to resistance can be aggressive and who have lately become a nemesis of the political right. Wolfsen contacted some of them to request that, if they came to the vigil, they avoid violence. The people he spoke to assured him that they wouldn’t “be rowdy and rude to the people grieving,” Wolfsen later said, “but afterward, they could do whatever they wanted to do.” The police were worried, too. Public records obtained for this story show that the GTPD decided to send plainclothes officers to monitor the vigil and asked the Atlanta Police Department to have quick-reaction teams on standby.
Who might be at the memorial wasn’t the only thing that was worrisome—so was what people knew about what had happened to Scout and how they were interpreting it. By Monday evening, several crucial pieces of information had become public. First was the fact that Scout hadn’t been wielding an exposed blade. Second, campus police carried guns and pepper spray but not Tasers, which the Schultzes’ lawyer described as “insane.” (Only 40 percent of campus police forces nationwide carry Tasers.) Third, Tyler Beck, the officer who’d killed Scout, hadn’t received training to navigate situations involving people in psychiatric crisis. Beck, who’d been on the force for 16 months and had gone on paid leave pending an investigation of the shooting, hadn’t completed the crisis-intervention training because it wasn’t mandatory.
People who believed Scout’s death was unjustified were infuriated and galvanized by what they saw as a perfect storm of institutional failures: Members of the GTPD were insufficiently trained and had used excessive force against a queer student suffering because of the campus’s deficient mental-health resources. Others in the Georgia Tech community felt like that reaction manipulated the facts to fit an agenda that demonized police and canonized minorities. “I fail to see a problem. They stopped a deranged lunatic from hurting people. That’s good work,” a commenter on r/gatech wrote. The bluntest view of all was that Scout was to blame for their own death, because what had happened was suicide by cop. “He approached police with a knife saying ‘shoot me,’” an r/gatech user wrote. “What part was undeserved?”
Frustration and accusations coursed through social media in the hours leading up to the vigil and spilled into the Kessler Campanile, where friends hung photos of Scout and distributed candles from plastic tubs. “Why did all of this happen? Why did Scout go down this route?” a student told the Associated Press as dusk settled over campus. “I’m angry,” another said, her voice tinged with disbelief. “I’m angry that the cops don’t have nonlethal ways to deal with things.” A third student said that watching the cell-phone video of Scout’s shooting, which had already been posted online, “induced a lot of panic in me.”
About 500 people attended, including Scout’s friends and the Schultzes. Aby Parsons, the director of Georgia Tech’s LGBTQ resource center, was one of the speakers. “Scout was frustrated with how apathetic the Georgia Tech community could be when it came to issues of social justice,” Parsons told the crowd. “They felt that I, as administrator, was trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, when they wanted to smash that house into pieces and build a new one.”
Her words seemed prophetically timed. As Parsons spoke, along the periphery of the vigil a group of protesters, many wearing bandanas over their faces and some armed with hammers and cans of paint and pepper spray, unfurled banners emblazoned with the anarchy symbol and slogans like “Defend LGBT+, End GTPD” and “End Police Violence → End Police.” Fliers circulated announcing, “There will be a march for those who wish to grieve and express their outrage in a collective capacity.” Officers on-site alerted their chief, who contacted the Atlanta police to tell them, according to a affidavit, that “there could be a destructive march occurring.”
Toward the end of the vigil, students lit their candles, turning the amphitheater into a twinkling semicircle. The melody of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” wafted through the air. Then there was silence, broken when a transgender student began shouting about the lack of mental-health care on campus. Other people joined her.
“Every single year I’ve known someone who has committed suicide,” one person said, according to the student newspaper.
“Why don’t GTPD carry Tasers?” another yelled.
“Why are they here at all?” someone answered.
Before long the yelling morphed into chants of “No justice, no peace, fuck the police” and “Cops, pigs, murderers.” That was when the Schultzes left. “We just weren’t in the mood to hear that stuff,” Lynne said. But many of Scout’s friends joined the chanting and, subsequently, the march. The PSA and Pride Alliance would later say that the demonstration was supposed to proceed to Scout’s memorial on Eighth Street. Instead, the crowd made its way from the campanile toward GTPD headquarters. Along the way they encountered police, but the protesters kept chanting, and some lit flares or beat on drums.
In a burst of adrenaline, Monden launched herself onto the hood of a police cruiser. She stood above the crowd in skinny jeans and a plaid shirt, listening to people scream in anger about Scout’s death. Her friends would later say that Monden caused no damage to the car—“it didn’t even have a scratch,” Kaffezakis told me—but the police claimed she jumped up and down on the hood and appeared to try to break the windshield by kicking it.
Two officers pulled Monden from the car down to the street. She wrestled free and took off running, moving so fast that she lost control of her limbs and fell flailing toward the pavement. The cops grabbed her, and Monden’s friends, including Punja, whose hair was dyed fluorescent pink, ran to her side. The police told people to stay back, and Punja retreated to the sidewalk. One of the cops put cuffs on Monden, who was belly down on the street, arms bent behind her back and a grimace on her face. Blood seeped from the officer’s scalp, through his short blond hair, and down his cheek. A protestor, another cop later stated in an affidavit, had hit the arresting officer in the head with a hammer.
“You murdered one of us!” shouted Kirby Jackson, the transgender activist. Jackson had transferred to GSU that fall for personal reasons but was in close touch with the Georgia Tech LGBTQ community that she’d helped nurture.
The cops led Monden to a cruiser. “Fuck you—you killed my best friend!” Monden screamed as she was placed in the back seat.
The police shut the door and drove her away. Nearby, another cop car was burning. Protesters had torched it, sending flames and smoke shooting into the night sky.
Monden was booked into the Fulton County Jail under her birth name, “Andrew Xavier Monden,” and charged with a felony for interfering with government property and a misdemeanor for inciting a riot. Later, after police reviewed video from the protest, Monden would be hit with additional misdemeanor charges.
“Yo, she has a cut on her side, she needs to go to the hospital,” Monden recalled the booking officer shouting to colleagues. Monden was bleeding from an injury to her torso, which she’d sustained when she tripped and fell at the protest. She took another ride in a cruiser to the same hospital where Scout had been declared dead. Police handcuffed her to a chair and a physician patched up the wound.
Once she was back at the jail, according to Monden, the intake officer took away her bra. “You’re a boy,” she remembered the cop saying. She was placed in handcuffs, then put in a holding area, where two male GBI agents arrived. It was the first time she’d spoken face-to-face with law enforcement about Scout’s death. After expressing what Monden described as “token sympathy” about Scout, the agents asked questions about her friend’s political affiliations. Monden felt like they were implying that Scout had been “some sort of terrorist.”
After the GBI agents left, Monden was ushered into another room, where she stood in front of a dull gray backdrop and stared straight ahead as a photographer snapped her mugshot. From there she went to a holding cell—alone at first, because the cops didn’t know whether to put her with male or female detainees. Eventually, a man joined her. He was one of two other people arrested at the protest.
Monden would spend two nights in jail, including a stint in a mental-health unit where, after being evaluated, she did her best to sleep as people screamed and banged on their cell windows and doors. When she finally appeared in court, looking weary in her navy blue jail garb, her bail was set at $20,000.
Headlines the morning after the protest described a peaceful vigil turned violent and a campus told to “shelter in place” for the second time in three days. Matt Wolfsen of the PSA posted a picture of the burned-out cop car on Facebook, writing underneath it, “Unacceptable. This isn’t the time to destroy. We must improve as a community out of love.” Many students liked the post, but Kirby Jackson commented, “Fuck you, Wolfsen.”
At a Waffle House near campus, some of Scout’s and Monden’s friends gathered around 1 a.m. to talk over greasy diner food. Wolfsen went, too, and tried to find common ground with the LGBTQ students. Where was the line between righteous anger and pointless violence? Who was allowed to draw it? Wolfsen was struck by the presence of Punja, whom he hadn’t met before that night. She seemed depleted, a shell of a person.
“Look what they’re doing to the trans community,” Wolfsen remembered Punja saying at one point. “Do I really want to live through this?”
“I’m not trans, so I don’t know what it’s like,” Wolfsen replied. “But this is rock bottom. It doesn’t get worse than the police just murdering someone in the street. Hold on—it will eventually get better.”
That night, Punja slept with a friend on either side of her. She didn’t want to be alone. For the next several days, she updated a Tumblr post titled “Since Scout I’ve Stayed At,” which contained a running list of bullet-pointed names.
At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, Georgia Tech’s president, Bud Peterson, released his second statement since the shooting. Once again he didn’t mention the cause of Scout’s death, and he called for unity. Peterson blamed the scene at the police headquarters mostly on “outside agitators intent on disrupting” the vigil. “They certainly did not honor Scout’s memory nor represent our values,” Peterson insisted.
If he knew it, the president didn’t say that one of the people arrested was a Georgia Tech student, a friend of Scout’s and a witness to the shooting. (A statement issued later that afternoon identified Monden as a student.) Nor did he acknowledge that Scout, like many students, had social networks extending to other area colleges and groups. He invoked a phrase that, in the American South, is loaded with fraught meaning. Outside agitator harks back to the Civil Rights Movement, when critics used it to discredit Martin Luther King Jr.’s legitimacy as an organizer. King addressed the phrase in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” penned in April 1963. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” King wrote. “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Monden’s friends were baffled. In their view, Peterson seemed more concerned about the protest than the shooting. Their confusion turned to outrage when signs of support for Georgia Tech’s police began popping up around campus.
The messages were scribbled in colorful chalk on sidewalks and in marker on posters taped up in dorm windows. We Support GTPD. We ♥ GTPD. We Are One GT. The last slogan seemed to summarize Peterson’s latest public statement.
The student president of the university’s Marksmanship Club started a GoFundMe page for “GTPD Office Recovery.” The fundraiser described Scout’s death as a “tragic suicide,” blamed the Monday riot on “the arrival of violent protestors, many of whom are not even currently attending Georgia Tech,” and asked people to give what money they could to support campus police. “GTPD has always been kind to students, treating us far more as equals than subjects; many of them are Georgia Tech graduates themselves,” the page read. “Now, it’s our turn to give back to them.” The page’s goal was $10,000, which it exceeded by several hundred dollars. The same day, a GoFundMe campaign started for the campus counseling and LGBTQ resource centers. It raised just $150 of its $5,000 goal.
A student named Courtney Allen created a Facebook event encouraging people to “Thank a GTPD Officer.” Allen wrote, “Take some time out of your busy class schedule and thank a GTPD officer. Thank every one you pass. Thank one that you look up to. Go to the department [and] thank all of them. Do something to show that the Georgia Tech student body still loves, cares, and supports our police officers.” In an interview, Allen told me she wanted to show that “students do still love our officers, like we would our family members after a horrible, life-changing event.” Not everyone felt the same way. “The GTPD murdered a troubled young person in cold blood, and you want to thank them?” one commenter wrote on Allen’s event page. “How dare you!”
Scout was gone, Monden was in jail, and “the first fucking response was, We should show our support for GTPD,” Bailey Becker told me, recalling the mood on campus after the protest. “It’s like, God fucking damn it. I know why you’re saying that, but that doesn’t make it any less basically sickening for me to see.”
Among those who responded positively to the outpouring was Tyler Beck, through his attorney. “He very much regrets the situation he was faced with, he and the other officers,” Don English, general counsel with the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, said of his client. “He is very appreciative of the support he has received from the Georgia Tech community, including most of the students.” Beck’s personnel profile, which was made public in the days after the shooting, contained no black marks. A month before Scout’s death, Beck had received a letter of commendation for “quick thinking” in stopping someone from stealing food from a dining hall by shutting them inside a freezer and calling for backup.
With regard to the shooting, English noted in his statement, “I’ve not talked to one law enforcement professional who would disagree that the use of force was justified in the situation that confronted these officers.” Critics, though, pointed to a case from 2010 that complicated the notion that Beck had no choice but to fire a lethal weapon. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, a Georgia Tech alum named Kshitij Shrotri attacked postdoctoral research fellow Samer Tawfik, with whom he had a personal dispute, on campus using a samurai sword. By the time the GTPD showed up, Tawfik was lying on the floor covered in blood, and Shrotri was standing above him clutching the sword and yelling, “You will have to kill me!” Police officers drew their guns, aimed them at Shtrotri, and pleaded for him to drop the weapon. Shrotri didn’t, so a cop pepper-sprayed him, subduing the armed threat. Tawfik spent time in the hospital but survived. Shrotri was charged with aggravated assault.
Some of Scout’s and Monden’s friends scrambled to append the chalked “We Support GTPD” messages with the words “…and the LGBT community.” One student told the local NPR affiliate that the pro-police sentiment “is just making it a lot harder to even be here.” He continued, “I did not think it would be so bad and that people would lack so much empathy, or only have sympathy for a burnt car.” Punja wrote on social media, “I’m so fucking sure this is just a nightmare but I haven’t woken up yet!!!!!!!!” and “my EX was SHOT and KILLED by COPS hahahaha What the Fuck.”
Even Matt Wolfsen, who’d initially criticized the protest, felt that the tide of public opinion was taking a worrying turn. Instead of talking about “students hurting” and the campus “needing real systematic change,” Wolfsen later said, he mostly heard complaints about “these crazy people setting fire to cop cars, just causing trouble.” Anxious to change the conversation, he gathered members of the PSA and drew up a list of demands for the Georgia Tech administration: better mental-health care, greater police accountability, improved services and accommodations for LGBTQ people. The PSA planned to deliver the demands to Peterson and hold demonstrations to publicize them.
Meanwhile, Kirby Jackson participated in an as-told-to article with Yahoo News several days after the shooting. “There were many more armed cops than there were Scouts,” Jackson said. “I’m incredibly surprised that the cops couldn’t have wrestled Scout to the ground or found some non-lethal way of ending that situation.” Jackson also criticized the counseling options on campus, which she’d personally found lacking, and defended the protest. “The vigil was very nice—it was a candlelight thing, a very moving, symbolic gesture. It was something Scout would’ve hated, as Scout was much more the type for action,” Jackson said. “It turned into a march over to GTPD headquarters, and it was tense—there’s a lot of anger about how they treated Scout, plus anger at police in general across the country.”
Privately, Jackson worried about Monden’s arrest. How was she handling it? As a black trans woman, was she safe in a penal system not exactly known for protecting vulnerable minorities? (About 20 percent of trans people who’ve interacted with police have been harassed; the rate is 61 percent among black trans people.) “That’s classic Kirby—to worry about other people more than Kirby,” her mother, Angela Amar, told me. When she was little, Jackson would drop pennies on the ground just so other people could pick them up and have good luck.
Monden was released from jail on Thursday, September 21. After consulting with her family, she decided to spend a few days in a mental-health facility. She described the experience as a “whole lot of extremely limited freedoms and awful regimented meals—and cookies, really awful cookies. They were like Lorna Doones. Also, lots of visible crying and fights.”
Just before she entered the facility, Monden had received an email from Georgia Tech announcing that she was being considered for suspension “because of the existence of significant risk to the health and safety of the Institute community.” If she wished to “be heard on whether [her] presence on campus poses a danger,” she had less than 24 hours to contact the relevant campus authorities and set up an appointment. Occupied with the distress she was experiencing, Monden didn’t reply.
A few days later, Monden was released from the mental-health facility. According to school records, the university established through its IT department that the e-mail notifying Monden of the pending suspension had been opened, but that she had not requested an appeal. In a message on September 26, she was officially suspended from school. Monden was banned from campus, pending a hearing before Georgia Tech’s Office of Student Integrity.
Around the time Monden left jail, the GTPD posted on Instagram that it was still actively investigating the protest “in coordination with local, state, and federal law enforcement.” The department asked “anyone who has footage of the march, riot, or events directly preceding or following the violence to upload your video” and provided a link to Leedir, an “eyewitness platform” used by law enforcement in emergencies.
Soon after, the arrests began.
At GSU, police identified a black student who’d been near Monden when she was detained. According to court records, the student was charged with misdemeanors for inciting a riot, willful obstruction of law-enforcement officers, and wearing a mask, hood, or other device that concealed his face. The affidavit for the arrest noted that the student was “known to this Department by him being arrested at other protest”—a reference, seemingly, to a previous demonstration against the Georgia Board of Regents, the governing body of the state’s public universities, for its policies toward undocumented students.
In another instance, according to an arrest report, police at GSU, based on information shared by their GTPD counterparts, entered a classroom, escorted a student who was friends with Scout into a hallway, and asked if she had any weapons. She said no and was patted down, handcuffed, and taken to police headquarters, where she was charged with willful obstruction of law enforcement and inciting a riot. Rumors also circulated that students who weren’t accused of crimes but who had attended the vigil were being pulled out of class and questioned; in a statement for this story, GSU said that never happened.
By early October, a half-dozen people had been arrested. Among them was Kirby Jackson. A police officer called Jackson’s home one day to inform her that a warrant had been issued. Unnerved that other students had been pulled from classrooms and anxious to avoid a similar scene, Jackson turned herself in. She was charged with willful obstruction of law enforcement.
The arrests flew under the public radar. Many professors and students weren’t aware that they were happening, and few media outlets covered them. Page Pate, a local trial lawyer, told a radio reporter that the police’s methods were unusual. “There’s no ongoing crime,” Pate explained. He saw the arrests as sending a message “that you better be careful when you show up and protest at the school or about something that the school has done.” Through a spokesperson, Georgia Tech responded, “No one is being targeted because they protested.”
Donald Downs, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of several books on free speech, told me, “I’ve read a lot of stuff on campus upheaval, but I have not run across any situations where there were arrests made inside classrooms and students questioned like that.” GTPD’s approach risked creating a “chilling effect on free speech,” said Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida. “Students are less likely to [protest] if they know they are going to be yanked out of the classroom, embarrassed in front of their classmates.”
No one was more nervous about the arrests than Punja. She knew that her pink hair made her easily identifiable in protest footage. She grew anxious when she heard police sirens or saw flashing lights. “I’m not strong enough to go to jail,” Kaffezakis recalled Punja telling her. “I’m afraid of how my family is going to react.” Kaffezakis tried to reassure her friend that “this is not the end of the world.” Punja talked to Monden about killing herself but said she wouldn’t do it if Monden didn’t either—a suicide pact in reverse.
On Saturday, September 30, there was a home football game, a big social event on Georgia Tech’s campus. The team was playing the University of North Carolina, and like thousands of other students, Kaffezakis went to the stadium to watch. She was in the packed stands, checking her phone, when a friend told her to check out a worrying post on Punja’s Tumblr. Punja said she was at a gun show where “a guy asked me if i was here to attend or protest.” She added that the gun show “should really b stricter with the background checks; i’ve been involuntarily hospitalized like 3 times lmfao.”
Kaffezakis immediately dialed Punja’s phone number. A man answered and identified himself as a detective. “What’s going on? Why are you answering?” Kaffezakis asked, pushing through the stadium crowd so she could hear the detective clearly. He said that Kaffezakis would have to talk to Punja’s mother; then he hung up.
It took some time to get Punja’s mom on the phone. After being contacted by authorities, she’d sped to Johns Creek, a small city northeast of Atlanta where, after the gun show, Punja had driven, too. Punja had parked on the side of a road and, with a weapon purchased at the show, shot and killed herself. Law enforcement had spotted her car and identified Punja with ID recovered inside.
A memorial was organized off campus at Kweer Haus, a facility offering short-term housing for homeless LGBTQ people in Atlanta. The theme was pink, Punja’s favorite color. Pink candles and flower petals surrounded a framed picture of the deceased. Pink and silver balloons filled the room. At the end of the vigil, mourners went outside and released them. The orbs drifted above the trees of downtown Atlanta, catching the glow of streetlights. Eventually, they slipped from sight.
Before Punja’s suicide, the PSA had released a statement announcing that, if the Georgia Tech president’s office didn’t agree to implement the group’s demands, its members would march to his office and “engage in peaceful and non-violent demonstration, including but not limited to a ‘die-in.’” Students en masse would lay down on the ground “to represent the deaths that will result from a lack of mental health care.” The PSA’s demands included more funding for treatment, mandatory police training in crisis intervention, more gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-inclusive housing on campus, the reinstatement of the Pride Alliance’s office space, and the relocation of the LGBTQ resource center. For a little more than a year, it had been in a renovated storage room, with just enough space for the director’s desk and chair, as well as a couch.
The university didn’t publicly acknowledge the PSA’s statement, but two days later, Peterson made one of his own. In response to Scout’s death, Georgia Tech would be creating four “action teams” tasked with evaluating mental-health services, campus culture, LGBTQ issues, and public safety. They would make recommendations for change no later than November 1, 2017.
Behind the scenes, the administration was taking action of a different sort. When it was notified in advance of a planned demonstration at the campus’s student center, where professors and undergraduates would discuss the impact of Scout’s shooting, Peterson alerted the FBI and GBI, as well as state and city police. “After what happened Monday night,” Peterson later said in a meeting, indicating Scout’s vigil, “we didn’t know if we were going to have Charlotte or if we were going to have something that turned out to be a non-event.” He was referring to the widespread protests in North Carolina that had occurred in 2016, after police shot and killed a black man named Keith Lamont Scott. The governor of North Carolina had declared a state of emergency and deployed the state’s National Guard.
About 75 people gathered for the student-center protest on a Friday afternoon, and they were peaceful. They discussed feeling “fear, pain, frustration, deep sadness, [and] disappointment” since Scout’s death, according to a reporter who attended. Around 3 p.m., the demonstrators were alerted that the building was locking up early that day. It wasn’t a planned closure; the administration, it appeared, wanted them to leave the center.
Outside, a police helicopter hovered in the sky. This “is the kind of culture of fear that we’re talking about,” Anne Pollock, a participating professor, told a reporter. “They were very worried that antifa would take over our event or something like that.” Bailey Becker, who attended the gathering, told me that participants were afraid of getting arrested or worse. “All of us went to that protest with this fear,” Becker said. “Is this going to get someone else hurt? Is this benign action going to bring fire on somebody for doing something that they should be allowed to do without question?”
Georgia Tech officials acknowledged the protest in a statement but didn’t mention the decision to shut down the student center. “Since Monday’s activities,” the statement read, referring to the riot, “we’ve had an increased level of security on campus.”
A few days later, Matt Wolfsen was invited to a meeting with Peterson and two state legislators. By then the student government had pledged $500,000 to mental-health services, which the president’s office promised to match. The funds would be dispersed on a proposal-by-proposal basis. Peterson announced a separate $1 million endowment, established through the nonprofit Georgia Tech Foundation, for campus wellness and police training. Peterson also said that he was temporarily lifting the 16-session limit on counseling appointments. Some students pointed out that this wouldn’t address the fact that it often took weeks to secure a session—in fact, it risked making the backlog worse—or that people referred to the counseling center as suicidal often wound up at the Ridgeview Institute, a private psychiatric hospital, where expenses could balloon to nearly $1,000 a day.
Wolfsen had hoped to hear Peterson’s broader plans for improving health services, among other things on campus, when he met with the president and the two legislators at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building, a white stone structure in downtown Atlanta. There, Wolfsen and another PSA student sat at a conference table across from representative Park Cannon, a queer black woman and the youngest Democrat in the state assembly. Mable Thomas, who’d served in the legislature on and off since the 1980s, sat at one end, Peterson at the other. The Georgia Tech president was the room’s center of gravity. Tall and patrician, with gray hair combed carefully to one side, Peterson is an engineer by training and the state’s highest-compensated public-college administrator.
The mood was tense. In a recording of the meeting obtained from one of the participants, Peterson responded to legislators’ concern about police preparedness for dealing with students in crisis; just 18 of the 85 officers on the campus force had received the appropriate training. Peterson also apologized for using the term “outside agitators” in his statement after the riot. “That carries a special connotation in the South, and I’ve been cautioned and apologize for the use,” he said. (Peterson, who hails from Kansas but has worked in the South for many years, has not publicly apologized for the usage.)
Cannon and Thomas peppered him with questions about the case against Monden and a perceived lack of sympathy shown by the university toward Scout’s family and friends. “There was almost [an effort] to marginalize it,” Thomas said of the shooting, “like, ‘Oh, [Scout] wanted to die.” She also remarked on how young Scout and the protesters were; most of them were under 25 and “immature as can be.” Her description echoed the only critical feedback in Tyler Beck’s police personnel file: “He is young and is still learning laws, policies, and criminal procedures.”
At one point, the legislators brought up the PSA’s proposed die-in. Wolfsen piped up, speaking to Peterson directly and thanking him for the steps, such as the action teams, that Georgia Tech was taking to address students’ concerns. “That’s been changed,” Wolfsen said of the die-in. “We hear you, and we’re very much appreciative of the efforts you’ve put forward. Going forward we want to make sure that this does result in long-term change. We are not going to be as aggressive anymore.”
Peterson responded, “Have you informed these representatives of your involvement and engagement with the people from off campus on the event Monday night? Have you disclosed that to them?”
Wolfsen was caught off guard. After the riot, he’d reached out to administrators to tell them that he’d personally asked anarchist and antifa factions to be nonviolent and was disappointed that they hadn’t obliged. Now, though, it seemed as if Peterson was suggesting that Wolfsen was trying to hide his contact with nonstudent protesters.
“Did you communicate with them before the event on Monday night?” Peterson demanded.
“Yes,” Wolfsen said. “I talked with them because I wanted them to be very clear about what they were doing.… It fell through, unfortunately. “
“Did you inform our public safety or anybody in the administration or staff at Georgia Tech that you were in communication with people off campus that were potentially violent?” Peterson asked.
The other PSA student jumped in. “It wasn’t that they said that they were going to do something violent,” she said. “It was that we asked them not to.”
“It would have been enormously helpful if we had been made aware,” Peterson said.
When the meeting ended, Wolfsen felt a nagging fear. What if the university thought he’d conspired to start the riot? Wolfsen contacted a lawyer and submitted a request under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for his student records.
On October 8, family and friends gathered in Tucker, Georgia, close to the Schultzes’ home in Lilburn, for Scout’s memorial. A picture of Scout protesting House Bill 51, waving a pride flag while walking down an Atlanta street, was set next to a podium and an array of vibrantly colored flowers. In lieu of gifts to the family, the Schultzes asked that people donate to two organizations benefiting LGBTQ youth: the Trevor Project, a national suicide hotline, and a thrift store in Atlanta that supported affordable housing. That Punja, the kindhearted kid who’d given her a plastic bouquet, was also dead made Lynne Schultz feel like she had to do more. She was too upset to deliver a speech, so she distributed fliers on which she’d printed information about resources for suicide prevention.
“We are joyful, angry, celebrating, and mournful. We’re proud and upset, disheartened but resolved,” the chaplain leading the service intoned. “Would the status and lives of secular, freethinking students, at Georgia Tech and elsewhere, be better served if Scout Schultz had lived to continue to work for that?… Yes. How much? We’ll never know.”
In a photograph from the service, Kirby Jackson, fresh off her arrest and awaiting a legal hearing, stands in front of a floral-patterned chair. Her arms hang at her sides, and her hands are clasped at her waist. Like Monden, who was also at the service, Jackson had been banned from the Georgia Tech campus, where she’d continued to spend a great deal of time since transferring to Georgia State and where many of her closest friends still attended classes. “Basically, she was cut off from her support network,” Kaffezakis told me.
Jackson stares directly into the camera, her gaze blank.
By mid-October, the media had mostly stopped covering the aftermath of Scout’s shooting. Without more rioting, there wasn’t obvious drama to focus on. The charges against Monden, Jackson, and the other people arrested would likely take months to work their way through the legal system. According to Georgia Tech policy, regardless of the charges against her, the university had 30 days after issuing her suspension notice to determine whether or not Monden could come back to school. Days turned into weeks. Thirty days passed. There hadn’t been a hearing, and Monden was still banned from campus. Before long, it was so late in the fall semester that there was no chance she could enroll for the spring. Monden would miss a full year of school. She moved in with her mom, who lived about nine miles from campus, and started working as a barista at a coffee shop.
Meanwhile, in early November, right on schedule, three of Peterson’s action teams submitted their recommendations. The ideas included increased money for counseling, new initiatives to diminish students’ stress, and the hiring of counselors with “extensive training in related areas such as gender and LGBTQIA studies.” But the fourth action group, focused on public safety, hadn’t yet convened because the investigation of the shooting hadn’t concluded. There was no timeline available for when that would happen.
Before Thanksgiving break, Matt Wolfsen got the result of his FERPA request. He was stunned to discover two binders thick with documentation; a third one arrived a few months later. Inside the binders was evidence that the university was tracking his movements. “Wolfsen travelled with a small contingent of students to Washington DC on July 31 to speak with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand [and] Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ staff regarding HB 51,” Steven Norris, the school’s assistant director of social media, wrote in an email to Georgia Tech’s office of communications. “Wolfsen is a registered member of the Democratic Socialists of America Group and is attending their national convention in August as an elected representative from Atlanta.” The administration also had eyes on Wolfsen’s social media, describing him as “one of the moderators of the FB group ‘Students Against House Bill 51.’”
On September 23, a week after Scout’s death, Norris had sent an email with the subject line “Weekend Monitoring.” He’d taken screen grabs of the PSA’s Twitter account, including a picture of a poster on campus reading “We demand the increase of current funding allocated to mental health on campus” and a tweet from Wolfsen describing the PSA’s demands of Peterson. The tweet, Norris wrote, “had received a fair amount of engagement this afternoon.” He added, “Thankfully many more mentions of football game and GT win have dominated conversation streams.”
The practice of colleges monitoring students’ social media is becoming more common. Some universities even pay private firms or purchase special technology to keep an eye on enrollees’ digital lives. Schools say that this tracking is necessary for campus safety and point to examples like a 2014 case in which a University of Georgia student was arrested after posting on the app Yik Yak that he was going to shoot up a building with an AK-47. Critics worry that targeted, sustained monitoring of certain students—those engaged in activism, for instance—could discourage free speech. “A reasonable person might say, instead of risking trouble, I’m going to shut up,” said Adam B. Steinbaugh, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
In Wolfsen’s case, after he put some of his FERPA records online, Georgia Tech released a statement saying that it had “noticed” his posts because they either tagged or mentioned the university. The administration also pointed out that “he was never reprimanded or disciplined for anything he posted.” Still, the revelation about monitoring set some students, including Scout’s friends, on edge. They wondered if they were being watched and if they should leave Georgia Tech. “They can’t fire students,” Bailey Becker told me, “but they sure as hell can drive us off campus.”
There was a sense among Scout’s friends that if they could just get to the end of the semester, the situation might improve. They could take a break, go home, be with their families, grieve, recharge. In the spring, they’d have more energy and more distance from the shock of losing Scout and Punja.
Jackson, though, was struggling. Her mother, a self-described “eternal optimist,” reassured Jackson that she would get through this crisis. They would contest the legal charges against her and life would go on. “It was going to be rocky, but we were going to make it,” Angela Amar told me.
Jackson turned 24 on November 26. She went to New Orleans with family and friends to celebrate. At a birthday lunch, in keeping with her den-mother reputation, she told a younger female cousin who was getting bullied at school to call her anytime she needed to talk. Soon after, Jackson traveled back to Atlanta for final exams at GSU. She didn’t complete them: On December 6, Jackson shot and killed herself in her bedroom, located on the basement level of her mother’s house. She didn’t leave a note. Her obituary described her as “a gentle and sensitive spirit” and “a champion for the voiceless.” Jackson’s mother realized that the legal authorities weren’t aware of her daughter’s death when, well after the fact, a summons arrived in the mail ordering Jackson to appear in court regarding the charges brought against her following Scout’s vigil.
The day after her suicide, about a half-dozen of Jackson’s friends met at an off-campus apartment. One of them had invited a therapist to talk to the somber group. They shouldn’t blame themselves, the therapist told the young people who’d gathered, and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and to look out for each other. But they’d been doing that already, the students thought, and all they had to show for it were three dead friends.
Monden became obsessed with a photograph posted on Facebook a few months prior. Taken at night under bright streetlights, the image shows a smiling Scout, hair draped over a white tank top and one arm wrapped around Punja, who’s wearing a black jacket and thick-framed glasses. Monden is on the other side of Punja, leaning into her, with bulky headphones slung around her neck. After Jackson’s death, Monden kept looking at the photo, thinking about how she was the only one in the picture still alive. Maybe it was her turn.
It should have been me, Monden thought, not Kirby.
I started teaching at Georgia Tech in January 2018, after the winter break. As a new arrival on campus, I wasn’t aware of a lot of what had transpired in the fall. I didn’t know, for instance, that Monden was still awaiting word on whether she’d ever be allowed to return to campus. On February 6, one of my students, who is nonbinary, asked me before class if they could make an announcement. It was about a vigil happening at 5:30 that afternoon. I obliged, and the student stood before their classmates to share the CliffsNotes version of Monden’s story, which her friends hoped would conclude after an upcoming hearing before the Office of Student Integrity. The student had fliers, which were placed on a table at the front of the room for anyone who was interested. On one side were the pertinent details about the vigil—time, place, and so on. On the other was an impassioned message:
OSI and GT administration has violated the following rights:
Right to an expedited trial
Right to clear and timely communication
Right to the least restrictive punishment
Right to innocence until proven guilty
Will you be the next target?
Out of curiosity, I attended the vigil. It took place near the Ovation Statue, lovingly referred to by students as the Ice Cream Statue because it looks like a swirl of soft serve. About 30 people were there, including several LGBTQ students. Someone offered me a sign to hold that said “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Was Cat black? I wondered, immediately regretting that I didn’t know the answer to a basic question about a student intimately tied to a campus tragedy. I was struck by how committed the gathered students were to Monden’s case. By contrast, the wider campus seemed to have moved on from Scout’s shooting and the subsequent unrest, just over five months after it had transpired. I wanted to understand why this empathy gap existed.
I interviewed students, submitted records requests, and read all the news and social-media coverage of the shooting that I could find. I talked to family and friends about Scout and Punja and Jackson, learning who they were in life and what their deaths had meant to the people who knew them best. I tracked updates from Peterson’s action teams, including a proposal to establish a new and improved LGBTQ resource center, which would open in the fall of 2018. Students told me that, on some issues, they’d pushed the university to follow through. Based on an action-team recommendation, for instance, buildings were supposed to have gender-neutral bathrooms available, but the process of installing signs designating the facilities had been slow. At least one student contacted the director of residential life for help; the director put in a work order, and within two weeks more signs had gone up.
One student-led initiative involved digging directly into the wounds left by Scout’s killing. Kaffezakis, with the help of the LGBTQ resource center, contacted the GTPD and offered to train officers on trans awareness and inclusion. The police accepted, and Kaffezakis convinced several of her trans friends, including her partner, to go to GTPD headquarters for six sessions. “For a lot of people there, it was super uncomfortable,” Kaffezakis said, “but there was sort of an acknowledgement that it was something that we had to do.”
For the first 90 minutes of training, Aby Parsons of the LGBTQ resource center discoursed on terminology and bias to about a dozen officers. At one point, Parsons handed officers a series of printed words affixed with Velcro and asked them to stick the items on a board in one of two columns. The words included slurs used against trans people and acronyms like MTF (male to female); the columns were labeled “green light” (acceptable) and “red light” (unacceptable).
The last half-hour was more unscripted. Kaffezakis and the other trans students stood in front of the room to answer questions. “How can we make trans students feel safe?” one officer asked. “Why do we need to use gender-neutral pronouns?” another wondered. “There were a lot of heartwarming parts,” Kaffezakis recalled, and officers who were “very clearly engaged.”
But some seemed unfocused, even annoyed. At one point, a cop asked, “Why do y’all not trust us?”
The obvious response was Scout’s killing, but Kaffezakis decided to go further than that. It wasn’t the GTPD specifically that trans students didn’t trust, she said, it was law enforcement everywhere. She detailed survey research done by the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, an Atlanta-based black transgender and queer organization, which in 2016 found that after calling the police for help, more than a third of the trans women of color interviewed wound up being arrested. Eighty percent of respondents had been stopped by police, and about half of those stopped had been questioned on suspicion of prostitution. “Everything that happened with Scout’s shooting,” Kaffezakis concluded, “centered GTPD within that perspective and those expectations.”
When she finished talking, the room was quiet. She hoped it was a signal of sympathy.
In December 2017, according to public records, the GBI handed the findings from its investigation of Scout’s shooting over to the Atlanta district attorney’s office for review. The Schultzes said that they’d been told it could be two years before they know who, if anyone, would be held accountable for their child’s death. Among the items in the DA’s possession are Scout’s suicide notes. The Schultzes said that they haven’t had a chance to read them and won’t be able to until the DA is done with them. The DA declined to comment for this story, citing its policy of not talking about ongoing investigations.
I was eager to talk to university officials to get their perspective on the case, the protests and arrests, and the changes proposed on campus. As any academic knows, committees and recommendations don’t necessarily translate into action; too often, semesters pass with little more than updates on measures that have been forthcoming for what feels like years. I reached out to several decision-makers, including Peterson and the GTPD chief, and was told by each person or their assistant to contact Lance Wallace in communications. Aby Parsons at the LGBTQ resource center didn’t reply to my inquiries. Even the counseling center, which I’d visited hoping to talk to someone about the general topic of mental health on campus, wouldn’t comment. While I waited to be told no, I spotted a bowl of rubber yellow bracelets with #JacketsEndingSuicide printed on them in white lettering and pamphlets about “surviving after suicide loss.”
I contacted Lance Wallace but didn’t hear back, so I decided to drop by his office. The communications building is situated next to Bobby Dodd Stadium, where Georgia Tech’s football team plays its home games; a large picture window in the entryway offers a sweeping view of the pristine green field. I climbed the stairs to Wallace’s office, where the door was ajar. “I’ve looked at the website she’s writing for,” I heard a voice say. “She’s trying to tell as dramatic a story as possible, the facts be damned.”
It took me a moment to realize that Wallace was on the phone and that he was probably talking about me. I waited a few seconds, then knocked. “One minute,” he called out. Wallace ended his call with “Bye, chief.”
When he emerged from his office, he looked and acted the part of a PR professional: polite, charming, and sharply dressed in a suit and tie. He couldn’t answer any questions, Wallace said, because there were still legal matters in process. His office, though, could get me a statement. When I conveyed that I wanted as much information as possible in order to write a balanced story, he smiled. “Absolutely, and it makes perfect sense,” Wallace said. “It’s not that we’re just kicking you to the curb and saying, No, don’t talk to her.”
A few days later, Wallace’s office sent me his statement on Scout’s shooting. “While the case remains under review by appropriate state agencies, Georgia Tech is not in a position to grant interviews on the case,” it read, “and no Georgia Tech employees will do interviews on the topic.”
It’s easy to dismiss what a university does or doesn’t say about its business—to say nothing of attempts to get answers out of them—as unworthy of coverage in the face of bigger, more sensational news stories. Yet how universities act matters, because they’re entrusted with the care of young people and with shaping their worldviews. Public institutions like Georgia Tech and GSU are also accountable to taxpayers.
More urgently, campuses have become microcosms of America’s divided political culture. They’re battlegrounds for disputes over free speech, personal identity, policing, and other pressing social issues. Fringe political groups and actors, some of them affiliated with the far right, stir up controversy and court potential members at colleges and universities, while so-called watchdog organizations like the conservative group Campus Reform scour the web for trolling fodder. A July 2018 Campus Reform article, for example, mocked the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for allowing a student to submit a bias incident report in 2016 for “being forced to choose male or female when completing forms/paperwork.”
Higher education is also on the front lines of a volatile debate over civil disobedience in the face of perceived injustice, waged in earnest since President Donald Trump’s election and amid increased scrutiny of America’s enduring legacy of white supremacy. In August 2018, as the fall semester began at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protestors tore down a longstanding Confederate monument, eliciting praise from liberal circles and condemnation from many conservative ones. Ultimately, the state’s highest education authorities came down on the side of the right. The chair and president of the UNC system released a joint statement describing the statue’s dismantling as “unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible. We are a nation of laws—and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.” The statement did not mention the statue’s history, including stymied efforts to have it legally removed and a dedication speech in 1913 at which a Confederate veteran praised his fellow men in gray for defending the “welfare of the Anglo Saxon race” and bragged about how he once “horse-whip[ped] a Negro wench” about 100 yards from where the statue stood. As with Georgia Tech’s comments about Scout’s shooting, context was everything—and it was lacking.
Meanwhile, the Georgia legislature, following a model set by several other states and championed in conservative circles, passed a law in the spring of 2018, ostensibly intended to protect First Amendment freedoms on campuses by mandating that public institutions enact “content-neutral” policies regarding speeches, demonstrations, and other “expressive activities.” Yet the law also requires that schools sanction students who “disrupt or interfere with the functioning of the institution or classroom instruction.” In other words, students who protest campus events or school business—who, say, heckle a speaker they find offensive or stage a die-in at the president’s office—now run the risk of being punished.
The Georgia Tech administration was eager for campus life to return to normal after Scout’s death. For some students, however, normal was the problem. Scout’s friends wanted their pain to matter. “Bud Peterson and Georgia Tech are failing the students,” a third-year biomedical-engineering major said on a local news broadcast shortly after the shooting. “The thing is, if we return to the status quo, more people are going to keep hurting. People are hurting right now at Georgia Tech.”
I thought of those people when, through an open-records request, I received documents from Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. I wanted to know Tyler Beck’s status, since little had been heard from or about him since immediately after the shooting; I’d reached out to Beck but never heard back. The documents gave me some answers: As of July 2018, Beck was “actively employed in law enforcement” at GTPD. Since shooting Scout, he’d completed 126 hours of training, including crisis intervention. Meanwhile, the campus-safety action team still hadn’t convened; the website for Peterson’s office said that information about the group was “coming soon.”
In July, the GTPD hosted a going-away party for its interim deputy chief. In a photo from the on-campus event, posted to the department’s Facebook page, a man who appears to be Beck leans against a doorframe, a close-lipped smile above his square jaw. He wears a badge, a polo shirt and khakis, and what looks like a firearm strapped to his belt.
Beck isn’t the only person at the scene of Scout’s death who has since returned to Georgia Tech. In the middle of the spring 2018 semester, the OSI decided to revoke Monden’s suspension. It was too late to register for spring classes, but she could come back for the summer term.
As Atlanta slipped into months of ceaseless mugginess, Monden re-enrolled in classes in literature and communications. Georgia Tech is relatively quiet in the summer, but Monden never felt alone. For the first few days of classes, she told me, police officers followed her around. Eventually, she stopped noticing them, or maybe they stopped tracking her. Still, she occasionally spotted students giving her suspicious looks. When she introduced herself in conversations, people sometimes replied incredulously, “Are you that Cat?”
She kept a low profile and focused on the present, perhaps because what would come after the summer wasn’t entirely up to her. Monden wanted to graduate and become a video-game designer, but her charges were still pending; if convicted, she could face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison. Prisons are notoriously dangerous places for trans people, who endure a disproportionate risk of sexual violence behind bars, and the Trump administration recently rolled back a federal policy mandating that inmates be housed according to their gender identity and not their biological sex. In my conversations with her, Monden seemed averse to talking about the possibility of spending time locked up.
On the morning of August 13, a week before the start of Georgia Tech’s fall semester, Monden appeared in courtroom 4A of the Superior Court of Fulton County. She wore a striped shirt and black dress pants, and her hair was fashioned into short dreads. Family and friends were present, including several LGBTQ students. One of them kept an arm tightly wrapped around Monden’s shoulders as the group waited for the hearing to begin.
Monden was appearing with the two other people arrested at the march following Scout’s vigil. Monden’s codefendants pleaded guilty and received five years’ probation, as well as a fine. “If you interfere with a cop, you’re going to get beat up,” Judge Henry Newkirk told the newly convicted criminals, both of whom were white men. “If you hit me, and I’m a cop, I better have two other cops to help me whip you.”
Monden’s lawyer, meanwhile, took a different approach. After noting Monden’s return to Georgia Tech over the summer, he successfully negotiated for pretrial intervention, which meant that after completing certain court-appointed activities—the specifics of which weren’t logged in the public record and which Monden didn’t want to discuss—his client could petition for the court to reject her case entirely. It wasn’t an outright acquittal or dismissal, but if she obeyed the terms of the deal, Monden would at least avoid a felony conviction.
As for the context in which the events before the court took place, Newkirk acknowledged that “it’s a very unfortunate incident whenever someone is killed, especially by the police.” However, he added that there are “good shots” and bad. “From what I can see, the ones that aren’t [good] usually get indicted,” the judge said.
That her day in court was anti-climactic was in keeping with how life had come to feel for Monden in the months after Scout’s death. At first, she told me, she was angry—so much so that everything she experienced became a blur. But then she grew weary. Even with the threat of jail gone, she didn’t feel much like being an activist anymore. “A lot of people around me are trying to make the best of things,” Monden said. “I’m trying to get through life.”
For the queer community at Georgia Tech, the new school year is full of uncertainty. The revamped LGBTQ resource center proposed by one of Peterson’s action teams opened the first week of classes, a reminder that, in Bailey Becker’s words, “We’re here and fucking vibrant.” At the same time, Becker told me that the Pride Alliance is timid, always wondering when planning activities what Georgia Tech’s administration will think and weighing whether “we can get in trouble for this, because it’s political and we’re political.” The group, Becker added, can sometimes feel like a place “where activism goes to die.” Some of Becker’s LGBTQ friends have considered transferring from Georgia Tech but have stopped short because they “want something from the school that’s not lasting trauma.”
The mood is a far cry from where the Pride Alliance was one year ago. On a sunny summer day in 2017, Scout sat behind a folding table on the Tech Green, the heart of campus. They wore a floral T-shirt and sucked on a lollipop, pulled from a glass jar that passersby were encouraged to rummage through for their favorite flavors. If they didn’t want a lollipop, Starbursts were available, too.
The table was draped with a rainbow flag and offered pamphlets about LGBTQ pride. This was recruitment for the Pride Alliance, and Scout was the group’s ambassador. “Always fun to greet the incoming first-years and get a glance at the folks who make up the future of the organization,” they later wrote on Facebook, capping the message with a smiley-face emoji.
In a picture taken at the event, Scout appears confident. They’d donned a rainbow-colored Dr. Seuss hat, which had flopped to one side. Another student was wearing a trans-pride flag around their shoulders like a cape, and Scout had decided to add a cape to their own ensemble—the rainbow one from the table. They looked like a queer superhero.