Tragedy struck in late January when a gunman opened fire in a crowded atrium at Marshall County High School, killing two teenagers and injuring many more as terrified students fled for their lives when gun violence shattered a rural Kentucky community. The attack that turned the nation's attention on the grieving town of Benton has been voted Kentucky's top news story of 2018 in the annual Associated Press poll of editors, news directors and reporters.
A close second in balloting was the surge in political activism by teachers who descended on Kentucky's Capitol by the thousands to protest changes to the state's public pension system and demand more robust school funding. School districts across the state canceled classes when so many teachers joined the caravan, and their chants echoed through the statehouse as lawmakers considered pension and spending legislation.
The issue was still evolving late in the year, as Kentucky's Supreme Court struck down the new pension law and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called lawmakers back for a pre-Christmas special session to take up pension legislation again. Lawmakers ended the session without passing a new pension bill.
The push to revamp rules for some of Kentucky's Medicaid population , requiring them to either get a job, volunteer in the community or go to school to keep their government-funded health coverage was the state's No. 3 story. In late 2018, the Trump administration again approved the new rules, months after a federal judge blocked Kentucky's first attempt.
At No. 4 was the GOP-dominated legislature's decision to revamp Kentucky's tax code by giving $194 million back to taxpayers but imposing $681 million of new taxes on cigarettes and services like auto repairs. The tax increases will pay for increased classroom spending in public schools. Kentucky residents will pay 5 percent of their taxable income to the state, compared with between 5.8 percent and 6 percent that most people had paid. The plan also eliminated some deductions and imposed new taxes on a range of services that previously were tax-free. Bevin vetoed the tax measure but lawmakers voted to override.
The fifth-ranked story was another burst of gun violence that claimed two lives at a grocery store in suburban Louisville. A white man was charged with murder in the slayings of the two black patrons, and federal prosecutors later tacked on hate crime charges against the defendant, Gregory Bush. Police said he walked into a Kroger store and shot one person and then killed another in the parking lot before exchanging gunfire with an armed man before fleeing.
Other top stories included Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr winning re-election after a fierce challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath in Kentucky's 6th District, the sentencing of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's neighbor to 30 days in prison for attacking the Republican lawmaker while he was doing yard work at home and longtime Republican leader Jeff Hoover stepping down as House speaker after it was revealed he was among four GOP lawmakers who signed a secret sexual harassment settlement with a woman who once worked for the GOP caucus.
Rounding out the top 10 were stories about hemp being removed from the list of federally controlled substances to become a legal crop — an effort spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — and the ongoing legal fight over abortion laws that pitted the state's anti-abortion governor against abortion-rights activists from the American Civil Liberties Union.
It was supposed to be Spirit Week at Marshall County High School, nestled in western Kentucky near the Land Between the Lakes recreation area. Instead, homecoming events were canceled as the state and nation joined the rural community in grieving the deaths of two 15-year-olds — Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope — killed in the gunfire.
Police said Gabriel Parker, 15 at the time, secretly took a Ruger 9 mm handgun from his home and opened fire in the commons area where many students were gathered. Parker was arrested and charged with murder and assault.
At a community event days after the shooting, Jasen Holt, the father of one of the slain students, asked for prayers for all the "sweet kids" who were killed, injured or traumatized.
Later in the year, the school district bolstered security by adding police officers and installing metal detectors at the middle and high schools.
In a message to parents, Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett said he hoped the safety measures would help students feel more secure.
"We just want to make the schools as safe as we possibly can," Lovett said. "I wish we could guarantee something like that will never happen again, but I can't do it. We want these students to feel safe and we are doing everything we can to ensure that."