As a mentally disturbed woman with a pistol took aim outside Ashley Hall in early February, school administrator Mary Schweers stepped into the line of fire and looked down the .22-caliber barrel.
Alice Boland pulled the trigger, according to the police, but the gun didn’t go off. She had neglected to load a cartridge into its chamber.
But if Schweers hadn’t confronted her, Boland might have chambered a round and shot some of the children that the official shielded at the downtown Charleston private school.
That’s the account state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, gave in nominating Schweers for the Order of the Palmetto. He thought Schweers fit the bill for South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, which is designated for recipients who display lifetime achievement with statewide impact.
There’s no telling, Stavrinakis said, what lifetimes of achievement might have been foiled if Schweers hadn’t acted.
“The lasting impact will also be felt in the legislation this inspired,” Stavrinakis said of a new state law meant to make it more difficult for people like Boland to buy a firearm. “It will be felt in those kids’ lives when they go on to accomplish great things.”
But Gov. Nikki Haley’s office disagreed. Though the order can be awarded to multiple recipients yearly, Stavrinakis’ nomination was denied. Instead, Schweers was given a certificate.
In front of a sold-out crowd of 80,250 University of South Carolina football fans Saturday, Haley bestowed the order on Gamecocks women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley.
During news conference Monday at the College of Charleston, Haley told reporters that a certificate was the appropriate way to acknowledge Schweers’ bravery. But the governor said pitting Schweers and Staley, an Olympic gold medalist, against each other was a “tasteless” move by Stavrinakis.
“Those are two very great individuals of merit that are going to receive their due,” Haley said. “We should all celebrate both of them instead of comparing the two.”
Stavrinakis was at the football game when Staley was honored. Saying he was “floored” by the revelation, he took to Twitter and expressed his displeasure with the governor’s choice. The resulting feud had representatives of each side alleging that the award was being used as a political ploy to garner support from voters.
In his Twitter posts, Stavrinakis said Staley deserved the honor too. But he wondered why the order was given to a sports coach and not a woman “who risked her life to save (elementary) students from death.”
“I guess Mary can’t bring 80,000 folks into a stadium to see” the governor, Stavrinakis wrote. “Yes I am steamed now.”
South Carolina governors have been giving out the Order of the Palmetto — profusely, at times — since John West’s administration in 1971.
In 1999, though, Gov. Jim Hodges aimed to reform the award by designating panelists to determine who should be honored. Hodges said at the time that he was concerned about the order’s political use.
That came after more than 700 orders were distributed during Gov. David Beasley’s four-year tenure. Beasley often gave them to retiring legislators or politicians who lost their elections.
On Monday, Haley said each governor has had different standards. She said that she employs a committee which reviews applications, but that she gives the final word.
Many people who have risked their lives and made sacrifices for others, she said, have instead been given certificates honoring their actions.
“We never have too many people we can acknowledge,” she said. “But we acknowledge everybody we can whenever we see goodness coming out of somebody.”
Honorees from the Charleston area during recent years have included Jayne Ellicott, who was lauded for her work as principal of Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary, and Dr. M. Elizabeth Ralston, the founding director of the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children’s Center.
Schweers has not spoken publicly about her role in the ordeal earlier this year that captured national headlines and prompted a closer look at the mentally ill and firearms.
But in an email Monday, Schweers said she was “humbled and honored” to be recognized for her actions that day. She congratulated Staley for receiving the Order of the Palmetto and for the coach’s “contributions to the state.”
Because of Ashley Hall employees and Charleston police officers, “the situation last February was resolved peacefully,” Schweers said. “I am happy to be part of the strong Charleston community.”
Among other charges, Boland is accused in the attempted murder of Schweers. She’s also charged with pointing her gun at another school faculty member.
The Beaufort County resident, now 29, also faces federal counts relating to her purchase of the gun days before the incident. She had a past arrest for threatening to kill the president and was treated for schizophrenia — a history that federal authorities said made it illegal for her to buy a firearm.
Boland remained Monday at Federal Medical Carswell, a prison facility in Fort Worth, Texas, that specializes in treating female inmates with mental health problems.
Boland’s encounter with school officials and students at Ashley Hall inspired state and federal legislation to require the reporting of mental health data and a database of the mentally ill when it comes to gun purchases. While a bill by Sen. Lindsay Graham failed in Washington, Stavrinakis’ measure passed in Columbia and was later signed into law.
Stavrinakis said honoring Schweers would add to the positive legacy of what nearly was a tragedy. He thought Schweers would be a shoo-in for the Order of the Palmetto, he said.
Last week, though, he got word to the contrary from Haley’s office.
He hadn’t planned to make an issue of it, he said, until he saw Haley decked out in Gamecocks regalia during the ceremony honoring Staley at Saturday’s football game against the University of Florida.
After Stavrinakis posted on Twitter, he clarified that Staley was a “fine, deserving person.”
But the governor’s spokesman, Doug Mayer, said Stavrinakis should be ashamed of “diminishing the accomplishments of Coach Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and wonderful South Carolinian.”
Stavrinakis later said in an interview that he hadn’t intended to portray the award as a competition between Staley and Schweers. He urged Haley to change her mind.
“This is about her,” Stavrinakis said of Schweers. “How many lives did she save that day? I can go down the list of deserving people who have gotten this award, but not many are more deserving than her.”
Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
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