1. “It’s a place where kids have fun now.”
The playground where it happened doesn’t look the same as it did back then. The trees and shrubs where the shooters lay hidden in wait have been removed. The hulking two-story gymnasium wall has been patched to repair the pockmarks from the stray bullets. The sidewalk that jutted out from the door to the sixth-grade hallway was pulled up the year after the shooting. Five trees, planted to commemorate the five who died that afternoon, now dot the hillside behind the school, each 7 or 8 feet high. A 6-foot brick wall snakes along one side of a memorial garden; behind it sits five red picnic tables, five stepping-stones, and a weathered silver sundial inscribed with the names of the dead.
“It would be hard for me to come out here if it hadn’t changed,” says Debbie Spencer, a sixth-grade teacher at Westside Middle School. Spencer is one of only two current staff members who were here back on March 24, 1998, when two students, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson, turned this northeast Arkansas schoolyard into a killing field. The other remaining staff member, according to Spencer, doesn’t talk about it.
Despite the changes to the playground, some superficial scars remain: a few small divots in the concrete near the door to the school, a couple of indentations in that gymnasium wall. But you wouldn’t recognize these bullet marks unless you were looking for them, and Spencer’s current crop of students runs all over the area without much of a care. “It’s a place where kids have fun now,” she says. “They don’t know. They weren’t even born then.”
At the time it happened, the rampage at Westside Middle School was arguably the worst school shooting in U.S. history. In a plot that seemed far too fiendish for the young minds that hatched it, that Tuesday afternoon, just after lunch, Golden pulled a fire alarm luring his classmates and teachers outside, and then he and Johnson opened fire on them. The ambush killed four students, Paige Ann Herring, 12, Britthney Varner, 11, Stephanie Johnson, 12, and Natalie Brooks, 11, and one teacher, Shannon Wright, 32; an additional nine students and one teacher were injured.
Within hours of the incident, the national media descended on Jonesboro, Arkansas, and the rolling hills 15 minutes outside the city where Westside Middle School sits. The parking lot of the elementary school next door filled with satellite trucks, news helicopters circled, and reporters hounded anyone with even the most tenuous connection to the shooting or the victims. In the days that followed, the world gasped at images of tearful sheriffs, horrified parents, and stunned schoolchildren, asking what could possibly push two young boys to such violence against their classmates and friends, and how this small Southern community could ever find a way to go on. Then, a few weeks passed, and the satellite trucks, the helicopters, and the reporters picked up and left, and the rest of the world moved on.
Today, the shooting is a historical footnote, and Jonesboro is just another name on a depressingly long list of places that seem cursed to be remembered — in some cases, barely — for the schoolyard carnage they played host to: Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, Littleton, Red Lake, Nickel Mines, Newtown. The details of each of these towns’ tragedies are uniquely horrible, but with a decade and a half of distance, the story of what happened to this place and to these people — the students and faculty who lived through it, the families of those who didn’t, the first responders, the shooters themselves — feels at times like an inspiration, and at others, like a grim cautionary tale.
But the residents of this community never signed up to be an inspiration or a cautionary tale. For almost everyone I spoke to over the course of a week in and around Jonesboro, it’s the defining event of their lives, yet not something they talk about with strangers, or even with one another. But once they were convinced to open up, most seemed eager or relieved to share, accepting that their stories were not theirs alone but part of a larger story that goes far beyond northeast Arkansas, and that is still being written.
2. “Nobody knew what was going on.”
Although the massacre came to be identified as “the Jonesboro shooting,” the school itself actually lies closer to a small town of roughly 1,500 people called Bono. There’s a smattering of small, boxy houses and graying buildings — a truck and ATV accessories store, a Kum & Go gas station, Kelley’s IGA supermarket, a grim-looking H&R Block office, the Bono Church of Christ, a dilapidated but possibly still operational Warrior Gym — but nothing resembling the kind of town square that can lend even the most down-on-its-heels Southern backwater a steely nobility. The place feels unplanned.
The school is about five miles from Bono — drive south for a few minutes on Highway 63, then take a two-lane road for just over a mile, through hills dotted with small houses, country churches, and one scrap-metal yard piled with rusted-out vehicles, until you reach a hilltop where the middle school, high school, and elementary school that make up the Westside Consolidated School District (motto: “Heading in the Right Direction”) are spread across a large patch of land. Past the school, the road flattens out into an expanse of farmland toward the tiny towns of Egypt and Cash. Most of Westside’s students come from around here and refer to Jonesboro — a town of more than 60,000 with its own daily newspaper, small airport, and Division I college (Arkansas State University) — as “the city.”
In 1998, Debbie Spencer’s classroom was on a different hall than the one she teaches in now, but she and Betty Fuller, who was the teacher in charge of in-school suspensions at the time of the shooting, show me her old corridor one afternoon in January, just after school has let out. To me, it’s merely unremarkable: rows of beige lockers, beige cinderblock walls, a squeaky vinyl floor, a bulletin board ringed with handmade paper stars highlighting students’ work. To Spencer and Fuller, it’s something else entirely.
“I still can’t come out those doors,” says Fuller, pointing to the end of the corridor that leads to the playground. She left Westside five years ago for a school in nearby Weiner, but she and Spencer have remained close, a bond that can be traced in many ways to this hallway.
Spencer has broad shoulders, long brown hair, and a warm, motherly disposition. When Golden pulled that fire alarm, she was in her classroom alone. “When I walked out, I saw Stephanie Johnson,” says Spencer. “I thought somebody had pushed her because she went forward. I started to run towards her and that’s when she was hit again. She didn’t get her hands up. She just fell. Then I heard the sound of the gun.” Spencer froze for a moment, then began trying to pull students to the ground. A seventh-grader named Tristan McGowan grabbed her and complained he’d been cut.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” Spencer says. “He held up his arm, and I could see where two bullets went through.” She told him to follow her back into the building, but when she got to the doors, he’d taken off in the other direction and the doors had locked automatically because of the fire alarm. “I just remember the sheer terror: Something’s getting our kids and we can’t get back in.”
After a few moments, another teacher opened the doors from the inside. As Spencer came back in, two students did also, one dragging the other. Fuller, who was still in the hallway at the time, thought the shots might be coming into the building and began corralling some kids behind lockers and into an alcove by one of the classroom doors. The student who’d been dragged inside, a seventh-grader named Brittney Lambie, fell right beside Fuller, bleeding.
As Fuller huddled with the students, one of them told her it was Mitchell Johnson out there shooting; he’d told him not to come to school that day. Fuller had experienced several unpleasant run-ins with Johnson and was immediately convinced she was one of his intended targets — a fact, she says, that was later corroborated for her by the prosecuting attorney in the case.
“A part of me thought, If I just go out there, he’ll quit,” says Fuller. “And let me tell you, I was too damned scared to go out there. I carry a lot of guilt from that.”
In the hallway, Spencer was kneeling over Lambie, whom she’d known since she was in kindergarten. Lambie played on a softball team with Spencer’s daughter, who was also a seventh-grader at Westside, and on road trips they’d all get a hotel room together. “Brittney was yelling, ‘Help me! Help me!’” says Spencer. “I was in shock and didn’t know what to do. I was checking out.”
At this point, Spencer says she heard a voice — “it was God or Brittney’s guardian angel” — giving her instructions. She ran to her classroom and grabbed an emergency kit designed for responding to earthquakes. She began rifling through the five-gallon barrel, not even sure what she was looking for. Eventually she found some washcloths.
“Brittney’s socks were soaked in blood,” says Spencer. “I remember thinking, I’ve got to figure out where the blood is coming from. I was kneeling in it.” She started to undo Lambie’s pants but then looked down the hall and saw Fuller in the doorway with several students. “There were all these boys sitting there wide-eyed. It’s crazy, but I thought, I can’t take her pants off in front of these boys.”
Instead, with scissors, she cut Lambie’s pants from the bottom and discovered she was shot through the femoral artery. “Every time her heart beat, blood was squirting out,” says Spencer. She yelled to Fuller to get her something to make a tourniquet. Fuller found a flat sheet in the earthquake kit but said she didn’t think Spencer would be able to make it tight enough.
“I said, ‘Yes I can! Just give it to me!’” Spencer wrapped the sheet around Lambie’s leg, tied it in a knot, and then held onto it so tightly for so long that she later needed surgery on one of her hands to repair the damage. She propped Lambie’s leg up on a bucket and waited for help to arrive. The wait seemed interminable.
From outside, she could hear a staff member who was with one of the eventual fatalities, a skinny, energetic sixth-grader named Britthney Varner. “She was saying, ‘Hang on, Britthney. Hang on, Britthney.’”
Lambie was crying for her mother and Spencer assured her that her mother was going to meet her at the hospital. “She kept saying, ‘Am I going to lose my leg?’ And I kept saying, ‘No, no, no,’ but I didn’t know. We were the last ones to be reached by EMTs.”
Lambie didn’t lose her leg, but the wound was so serious that doctors said she almost surely would’ve died without Spencer’s intervention. Later that day, when she was talking to police investigators, Spencer discovered that she’d only narrowly escaped being shot herself: A bullet had pierced her purse, her wallet, and her compact.
Karen Curtner, Westside’s principal at the time, says Spencer “was one of the most critical people we had on campus that day. She literally saved this girl’s life because she knew what to do and was able to do it.”
Curtner herself had heard the fire alarm that day while she was sitting in the cafeteria, and by the time she walked out of the school’s front door, the shooting was already in progress. Curtner has short blonde hair, intense eyes, and a no-nonsense manner that one of her friends admitted can make her seem “scary.” She’d lived her whole life in the area, attended Westside schools, and had been hired as the middle-school principal in 1996, several months before the building first opened its doors to students.
As a self-described “country girl,” Curtner was accustomed to the sound of hunter’s rifles, but when she looked into the schoolyard, she was stunned: Some students were splayed out on the grass, others were running around frantically; the sixth-grade social studies teacher, Lynette Thetford, was on the sidewalk, shot in the abdomen.
“Everybody was floundering,” says Curtner. “I don’t know how to describe that feeling — you have no way to defend yourself, and you are ultimately responsible for all those kids. Everybody looks to you and says, ‘What are we going to do?’ I was like, ‘Get in the gym!’”
Once in the gym, the scene was only marginally less chaotic. Some teachers were hiding; others were practically catatonic. Terrified students mobbed Curtner.
“Those kids came up, pulling on me — they actually ripped my jacket,” she says, her voice cracking a little bit. “They were screaming, ‘Help! Call my mama! Call my daddy!’ I had a notebook in my hands, so I said, ‘Write your name and phone number and I’ll call your mama.’ They got that notebook and were tearing those pages off.”
In the midst of chaos like this, time can be a murky concept. Fuller told me the whole episode was over in four minutes. Curtner insisted it was 20 minutes from the time it started until the first help began to show up. Rick Elliott, a lieutenant with the Jonesboro Police Department who responded to the call that day, says that when he arrived, 10 minutes after the shooting began, Golden and Johnson had just been apprehended. He’d grabbed his rifle and bulletproof vest, but after quickly scanning the wood line for more threats, he began to perform first aid on Shannon Wright, who’d been shot in the chest and abdomen and hadn’t yet been reached by EMTs.
Nearly everyone I spoke to described the aftermath as a blur. That night, counselors, psychologists, pastors, and others were available at the school for anyone who wanted to come by — close to 700 did. Teachers were told they had to report back to school the following morning — a mandate that was unpopular amongst the staff — and students were back the day after that. On Friday, the funerals started.
The media was a constant presence throughout, and rarely a welcome one. Reporters staked out the school, the hospital, the sheriff’s department, the funeral parlors, and the homes of victims and survivors. Phones never stopped ringing with interview requests. Photographers hung from the trees at cemeteries in order to get a shot of the grieving families, a second wave of trauma compounding the first.
The intense coverage spurred an outpouring of support from around the world — mostly letters, cards, and small gifts. While most everyone appreciated the sentiment, as Curtner recalls, the sheer volume became overwhelming. “When you flood people with all that stuff, what are they going to do with it?” she says. “For years, we didn’t know. We had a huge display case at the school.”
Garth Brooks called about doing a benefit concert, and Tiger Woods wanted to raise money with a golf tournament. Curtner turned them both down. “Why did we do that?” she says. “I don’t know what I was doing.”
But events like this inevitably bring out, as Curtner puts it, “the crazies.” A clown drove from Florida and insisted he perform for the kids; a magician somehow slipped past police and was caught stealing quarters from students in the cafeteria. There were threats against the kids and staff, and a letter from the Unabomber praising the shooting as “ordained.” Police nabbed one man claiming to be a reporter before he could enter the school. “He had all these newspapers plastered up in his vehicle that had my picture circled in everyone one of them,” says Curtner.
All this hindered efforts to simply get back into a vaguely normal routine at Westside. As Spencer admits, the rest of that school year was pretty much a washout, academically.
“I actually gave grades for writing thank-you cards,” she says. “I just felt that the kids knowing they’re loved is more important than any science they’re going to learn that year. In one of my classes, three people were gone. They didn’t take their names off our roll, so you had to concentrate so hard not to call their names. One day, I called Paige’s name and I lost it.”
3. “People reach this point where they want things back to normal.”
Jonesboro lies near the southern end of the New Madrid Fault, a major seismic zone that stretches from the bootheel of Missouri down into northeast Arkansas. The fault is responsible for four of the largest earthquakes in North American history, all of which happened in late 1811 and early 1812 and measured between seven and eight on the Richter scale. These quakes were so intense that they leveled the town of New Madrid, caused the Mississippi River to run backwards, and created a 40-mile-long, half-mile-wide lake out of a section of the St. Francis River.
In the past 200 years, steady but comparatively mild quakes have continued to shake the area, doing little damage but keeping residents reminded of the potential for disaster right under foot. As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the metaphor many people reached for when describing the effects the shooting had on the community was that of an earthquake: Those closest to the epicenter sustained the most significant, enduring damage. As you move farther out, the impact tended to lessen.
For the first few months after the killings, the entire community was shell-shocked — everyone seemed to have some connection to the school — but in many ways, the early response exemplified the best clichés about small towns. Neighbors reached out to one another, local business donated items and services, churches set up programs to offer support and counseling. Gradually, though, a hierarchy of victimhood emerged between those who were “there” and those who weren’t.
Anyone who lost a family member was granted special status, as was anyone who was actually at the middle school during the shooting. But even amongst those who were “there,” fissures developed. Losing a child was different from losing a sibling or cousin. Those who’d been on that sixth-grade hallway and were firsthand witnesses or may have even been injured had clearly experienced something that those in other parts of the school that day couldn’t understand. Dee Kernodle, a licensed counselor who worked with survivors and their families, explains that these differences played a part in determining how people dealt with the emotional fallout.
“People who are on the outer edges of the tremors, they reach this point where they want things back to normal,” she says. “They don’t want their community to be defined this way. They’re kind of ready to move on. Then you’ve got people close to the epicenter who can’t.”
These are not ephemeral concerns. As the community tried to crawl slowly back toward something that might be called normalcy, there were minefields everywhere: When is it OK to remove the makeshift memorials and wreaths that sprung up at the school? What should be done with money donated in the wake of the tragedy? How should the school and the city acknowledge the victims? What new safety procedures or laws should be implemented? Who should have a say in redesigning the playground? How much leniency should parents and educators give to kids who are struggling to cope?
One of the trickiest things has been determining who exactly is where on this emotional earthquake map. When you get past immediate family members or maybe those who gained some notoriety because of their injuries, there’s no sure way to identify those who still walk around today, freighted with this psychic burden.
Dennis Woody, one of the paramedics at the school that day — he attempted to save Paige Herring as her father stood over his shoulder saying, “Come on, guys, come on” — says that the state provided a one-day debriefing for his ambulance company, but that was it in terms of mental-health counseling, and for him it wasn’t enough. He and the other paramedic he worked closely with that day both struggled for a while. “Both of us maybe drank more to try to deal with it. I know some of the other guys had trouble later on too with alcohol, depression, anger issues, marital problems. I know one or two seasoned paramedics that quit as well. I think 90% of the people involved suffered some kind of post-traumatic something.”
Bruce Tippit, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Jonesboro, was on hand at St. Bernards Medical Center the day of the shooting, helping to filter information to the families of the victims. A member of his church was in charge of marking the bodies at the school according to the severity of their injuries, in order to prioritize emergency treatment. “She’s never been the same,” he says of her. “She was always washing her hands. She couldn’t get the blood off.” Another woman, he says, a mortician at a local funeral home, embalmed some of the young victims. “It changed her.”
For those most impacted, the effects have often been far-reaching and long-lasting. One person I spoke to says she refers to that sixth-grade class — which has since been plagued by drug problems, divorces, serious illnesses, depression, and suicide — as “the walking dead.” Even today, Tippit says, the shooting is a living, breathing entity that must be handled with care.
“I will only make veiled references to it,” he says. “I will say ‘the tragedy our community knows so well.’ You’ve got people who don’t want you to talk about it — ‘You weren’t there, so how dare you.’ You tread lightly and respectfully because you just don’t know who was affected, why they were affected, and how they were affected.”
Annual anniversaries of the shooting can always be counted on to reawaken these ghosts, but not as much as the similar rampages that have become too common since. After the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, a delegation of clergy, teachers, students, and parents from Westside went to Colorado to try to offer whatever wisdom they’d gained from their experience. Jimmy Adcox, the head minister at Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, helped organize the trip, and although he believes it was helpful for some people, it wasn’t necessarily for him.
“I don’t think going to Columbine made me feel better or more useful,” he says. “If anything it just took me right back to where I was. It was a year later and I wasn’t much better off than they were.”
4. “I should’ve shut up and moved on with my life.”
In the weeks and months after the shooting, Mitch Wright was one of the most familiar faces to those who followed the unfolding drama on TV. Wright had been about 30 minutes from Jonesboro when he heard about the shooting on the car radio. By the time he arrived at Westside, his wife Shannon, a sixth-grade English teacher, had already left in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. A little after 7:00 that night, she was dead.
Wright and his son, Zane, 17, meet me at a restaurant in a mall where Zane, who is now a senior in high school, works at a Barnes & Noble. In our email exchanges prior to meeting, Wright had seemed reluctant and at times even angry. He’d warned me that if our meeting didn’t go well, he’d quickly end it. But once we all sit down in a booth, he’s friendly and relaxed, and tends to lean toward me as he speaks, as if confiding something.
After his wife’s death, Wright gave a steady stream of interviews to various news programs. He cut a sympathetic figure in the national media: a thoughtful, grieving widower sometimes toting the 2-year-old son he would now have to raise on his own. He frequently used his media appearances to advocate for changing the sentencing laws so Golden and Johnson, who were charged as juveniles, could be held past their 18th birthdays. (Additional federal charges tacked on three extra years.) He also joined a lawsuit against gun manufacturers in an effort to force them to install trigger locks on their guns.
Wright works in sales, setting up fundraisers for schools, which means he works on commission and had little choice but to get back to it shortly after his wife’s death in order to earn some money. But he felt unfocused and unmotivated, and being in schools all the time made it hard not to dwell on the shooting. He tells me that the counselor he was seeing cautioned him not to make any big life decisions for at least a year. “I totally messed that one up,” he says. “I sold my house in August. I couldn’t live there. I look at it now — I could’ve paid that house off. I was just running.”
He also began dating Diana Davis, a lead news anchor on ABC’s Jonesboro affiliate, KAIT, which among other things, turned a lot of local sentiment against him. “When we started dating, I heard every rumor in the world,” he says. “‘He was having an affair with her before his wife died!’ ‘I saw them together the day this happened!’ Just crazy stuff.”
Wright says he’d met Davis only a couple of times before the shooting, through her ex-husband. They’d initially become friends when Davis interviewed his late wife’s parents, and from there things moved quickly. Thirteen months after his wife’s death, he and Davis got married.
“Anyone who’s going through something like this, you feel like time is moving so slowly,” he says. “In my case, I was scared to death. I’m raising a child, being a mom and a dad. I looked at a 3-year old little boy who was crying all the time. Diana has a daughter the same age as Zane — we would go see them and this 3-year-old girl would have him laughing and playing. Everything felt wonderful. I felt God had truly brought this person into my life.”
Wright continued to do interviews, and following the shooting at Columbine, he was prominently featured during a televised town hall meeting that had been engineered by ABC’s Nightline as a summit of survivors from the two schools. Some around Jonesboro whispered that Wright was a phony for playing up his grief over his late wife while gallivanting with his new one. Others felt he was arrogant and grandstanding. Some accused him of using sympathy over his wife’s death to increase sales at his job. The letters of support he’d gotten in the months after the shooting began to be replaced with hate mail.
The couple had a son together, but in time, the marriage soured in a way that, due to Wright and Davis’ local profiles, was uncomfortably public. In 2009, they divorced. Wright talks carefully and deliberately about the split, as if he’s wary of stirring up this particular hornet’s nest.
“I think Diana always felt in Shannon’s shadow,” he says. “I look back, if I made some mistakes, probably after I married I should’ve shut up, not done any interviews and moved on with my life. That probably affected us.” That said, in retrospect, he thinks the union may have been doomed from the outset. “I just moved too quickly. I wish I could’ve waited and moved forward with the grief process before I ever decided to move on.”
Zane, tall and exceedingly composed, says he has only hazy recollections of his mother. His most enduring memories are of growing up without one. As a young child, he was the object of outpourings of sympathy — often from strangers — to an extent that frequently made him uncomfortable.
“I didn’t like being talked to by females, especially those who would come up and be like, ‘Oh, Zane!’” he says. “I didn’t like being touched. Through grade school, I always felt like I was different: You are the kid that lost his mom. It was hard to grow up with.”
With time, though, he’s come to appreciate some of the gestures people made toward him back then, and tried to pass them on. After the massacre in Newtown, Paige Herring’s mom Pam helped organize a local drive to send teddy bears to the children at Sandy Hook, an effort that drew a lot of support in the Jonesboro area. Zane got very involved, setting up several drop-off stations including one at the Barnes & Noble where he works. Although the effort could be viewed as the sort of well-intentioned deed that ultimately helps the givers more than the receivers, Zane — who received a bear from a donor after his mother was killed — suggests that for a young child, there is more to it than that.
“When you’re going through that as a kid, your innocence is taken,” he says. “You know from a young age that the world outside is not a nice place. Then all of a sudden you start getting bears and letters saying, ‘Hey, we’re praying for you.’ ‘We’re there for you.’ Then you get a second thought that the world may be a bad place and there may be a lot of bad people, but there’s a whole lot more nice people out there. It helps.”
Kernodle says the urge to do something in the wake of each of these new tragedies or to prevent new ones can be therapeutic. Several teachers I spoke to did speaking engagements about their experiences. Linda Graham, a school psychologist who was on the scene at Westside 30 minutes after the shooting and counseled students and faculty in its wake, later helped organize more comprehensive crisis-response teams that integrate school administrators, police, and mental-health professionals. Rick Elliott, of the Jonesboro Police Department, gives talks around the country to law enforcement agencies about what he’s learned from Westside. Kernodle herself travels around giving presentations to help prepare other counselors for the kinds of things she’s faced in Jonesboro.
“There’s a lot of energy in disasters,” she says. “There’s a lot of energy in grief. Your adrenaline pumps. Whether you’re angry at God or at circumstances, that energy, after a time, has to be channeled into something positive.”
5. “We went from being a family that sat down to eat at night to a family that sat across the table and stared at each other.”
The night before Britthney Varner was killed on the Westside playground, she was up late watching the Academy Awards. The following morning, her older sister Brandi, with whom she shared a bedroom, tried to convince her to skip school.
“Britthney said, ‘No, we’ve got to go,’” says Brandi Varner, a tall, straight-talking 28-year-old, perched on the kitchen counter of the house she shares with her mother, Suzann Wilson, Varner’s two children, and her half-brother. “I remember sitting at her funeral thinking, What if I would’ve just pushed her a little harder to stay home? I know I could’ve convinced her.”
Wilson, who is short, with dark hair and a deep, raspy Southern twang in her voice, sits at a table across the room from Varner, wearing a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with the words “The Joy Is in the Journey.” Between them is a kitchen island sporting a handful of family photographs, the most prominent of which is a large 8 × 11 framed photo of Britthney, smiling broadly in a white shirt, jeans, and a red vest. While we sit and talk, Varner’s kids, Shelbye, 10, and Jackson, 8, wander in and out of the room, and I find myself trying to time my most difficult and personal questions for when they’re not around. I have two kids around their age, and I couldn’t even bring myself to tell them what I was going to be doing in Arkansas. But neither Wilson nor Varner seem at all concerned about shielding the kids from the discussion — they’ve heard this stuff before.
Shortly after Britthney’s death, Wilson channeled her anguish into working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — equal parts activism and distraction. The guns Johnson and Golden had used at Westside had been taken from Golden’s grandfather’s house, and Wilson believed if they had been secured more diligently, the entire tragedy could’ve been prevented. As a grieving mother, she was a forceful spokesperson as well as, to put it indelicately, a useful political prop. She lobbied lawmakers in Little Rock and Washington, D.C., and attended two State of the Union addresses at the invitation of then-President Clinton.
Gun control wasn’t popular in Arkansas, and although for a while her personal grief seemed to inspire a measure of respect, or at least pity, amongst those who disagreed with her, with time she could feel the tide of local opinion turning against her.
“I got referred to as the ‘The Gun Lady,’” she says. “In Arkansas, all they heard was ‘guns’ and ‘she wants some kind of restriction on them.’ They went crazy!” In one memorable standoff, she was heckled by gun-rights advocates on the steps of the state capital and responded with a righteous fury that was replayed on the national news for days.
Ultimately, though, no new legislation was passed, and she’s not sure how many minds around Jonesboro were changed. “Women’s attitudes may have changed some, but not men. These guys are born and raised with a gun. You buy your son his first gun — that’s a rite of passage.”
Others I spoke to had wildly divergent views on gun control, both as a personal matter and a political one. Most seemed to have no problem with common-sense measures like universal background checks, and few saw any reason why civilians ought to have access to so-called assault weapons. Several wouldn’t allow guns in their home but didn’t have problems with others owning them. A few people, including Varner, were against their kids even using toy guns or pretending to turn their finger into one. As Varner puts it, “The magnitude of what we have lived through — what we’re sensitive to and what other people don’t understand — is totally different. How do you awaken everybody’s senses to this when they don’t know what it’s like?”
After the shooting, Varner, who was in eighth grade then, didn’t return to school for a month. When she did, she found that the landscape had changed. “When I went back, the cool kids wanted to be my friend,” she says. “They invited me to come over and sit at their table.’” The following year, she was voted “class favorite” and class officer and was one of the school’s homecoming maids.
“I was the tall girl in my class,” she says. “My teeth were ganked up. I was not the hot chick. And I’ll tell you what: That same year, [Natalie Brooks’ sister] Brynn, she was a homecoming maid too. Brittney Lambie — she got shot — she was a homecoming maid!” Varner laughs loudly. “I remember looking around, going, ‘This is a little awkward! This is the homecoming for the shooting girls!’”
Meanwhile, life at home had grown strained and surreal. Wilson was spending huge amounts of time on gun issues, traveling frequently, and the rest of her hours were absorbed with her full-time job as the administrator at a nursing home. Varner’s stepfather, Bruce, got up at 4 a.m. to go to work every day and wasn’t much of a talker anyway. Her biological father lived on the other side of the state. That left Varner dealing with her feelings about her sister’s death mostly on her own.
“For so long, it felt like I wasn’t able to cry. I didn’t want them to think I was upset, I didn’t want that attention on me. I had accepted the reality that Britthney wasn’t coming back,” Varner says, and nods across the room toward her mother. “She got mad at me one day because she didn’t think I was grieving the way I was supposed to. She was like, ‘You don’t love her! You’re not crying over her!’”
Left to her own devices, Varner admits she went “buck-ass crazy.” She started drinking, smoking pot and having sex. When she was 16, the family hosted a foreign exchange student from Belarus in their home who became Varner’s partner in crime. “Matter of fact, she left pregnant,” Varner says, laughing. “I was so angry at this point.”
Her grades plummeted. She had been planning to go to college on a volleyball scholarship, but during her senior year, a combination of academic problems and a disciplinary spat she had with Karen Curtner, of all people (who had by this time become the principal at the high school), led to Varner being kicked off what ended up being a state championship volleyball team. Since the shooting, volleyball had been her refuge, the one thing she could still do well, where she was judged purely on her own merits. Without it, she lost whatever remaining motivation she had in school. In November, she was expelled. “I was just lost,” she says.
Wilson sighs deeply and nods. “We all kind of floated around each other in our grief,” she says. “We went from being a family that sat down to eat at night to a family that sat across the table and stared at each other. We just didn’t talk about it. We didn’t know how to pick up the pieces and get along.”
Wilson’s gun-control work also seemed to put further distance between her and her husband. “I’m sure he took a lot of ribbing from his friends over the gun issues,” she says. “He didn’t like being in the limelight. I was gone all the time. It took a toll on our marriage. It took a toll on Brandi. I was just too consumed in my own grief to look out for anybody else. I didn’t look at it and go, ‘By doing this, I’m probably destroying my marriage.’ Because I was going to save America! I was going to save that next little kid out there from getting shot!”
Wilson got divorced in 2001. “I think if the shooting hadn’t have happened, we probably would’ve stayed married,” she says. “After losing Britthney, it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I think part of why I pulled back from Bruce and Brandi was because I didn’t want to hurt like that ever again.”
As the years passed, Wilson was dismayed to discover that no matter how busy she kept her mind — on her work, on gun control, on anything else — she didn’t feel much better. She could feel herself at the epicenter of the earthquake being gradually abandoned by those on the outer rings.
“I look at the faces of these parents from Sandy Hook and think, everybody is really involved in your life right now but a year from now, people will be like, ‘You need to put that behind you and move on,’” she says. “I actually had people tell me I need to let go and move on. To this day, though, I still have no idea how.”
Wilson isn’t angry at her friends and the community for wanting to put the shooting behind them. She tells a story about someone she works with now whose brother-in-law went missing a week ago and is presumed to have drowned in a river. Today, the woman was back at work, and Wilson found herself at a loss for how to deal with her.
“What do you say?” she asks. “You can’t help her, and you don’t want to say something stupid. I found myself walking a different path so I’m not going to have to make eye contact with her.”
She shakes her head. “People don’t like to look at grief. Grief is ugly. First, everybody was horrified and they couldn’t do enough. But then, it was like, ‘Let’s get this ugly spot off this town.’”
After Varner was thrown out of high school, she was contacted by a college in Missouri and told that if she got her G.E.D., they’d still be interested in offering her a volleyball scholarship. That May, she found out she was pregnant.
“I always said if it ever happened, I’d probably have an abortion because all I wanted to do was play ball,” Varner says. She motions to her daughter, Shelbye, now looking in the refrigerator for something to drink. “I ended up keeping her, of course.”
The baby, who bore a striking resemblance to Britthney, “breathed life back into everybody,” says Varner. As a mother, Varner began to understand her own mother’s profound grief and they began to repair their relationship. But even 15 years later, her sister’s death is not like some old photo album that has been put on the shelf to simply be pulled out and leafed through with interested visitors.
“I’ll lay in bed at night sometimes and plan my kids’ funerals, think about what songs I would play,” she says. “I think about those things and I’m like, this isn’t normal.”
When Shelbye first went to school, Varner had to find the smallest magnet school possible so she could keep tabs on how the other students’ parents stored their guns. “I’m a major control freak,” she says. “I’m super-protective.”
“Overprotective!” Jackson shouts from the next room.
Varner didn’t stay together with either of her children’s fathers, and admits that she’s often found relationships challenging. “The biggest thing is probably being careful about who you love,” she says. “Because I don’t have the energy to worry about all these people. I worry about my kids, my mom, my little brother, and that’s probably it.”
Wilson too still feels Britthney’s absence every day. “I’ve thought of contacting the Sandy Hook parents, but I have nothing to tell them that’s going to make them feel good,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to make them think at some point this is going to be better. It isn’t. There will never be a time they won’t go back and go, ‘What if I had done this different?’ I play that game in my head all the time: ‘What if I had let her stay home from school?’”
6. “All day long I would look at where this happened.”
Lynette Thetford is sitting on the couch in her airy living room, staring out the large glass-paned doors and windows that look out onto her backyard.
“I could’ve never had windows like this back then,” she says, motioning with her hand toward them. “When I was coming home from the hospital, I remember stopping at the grocery store and scooting down in the car because I was afraid somebody was going to shoot at me. In a restaurant, I still don’t like to sit with my back to where people are coming in.”
Thetford, a sixth-grade social studies teacher in 1998, was shot in the stomach that afternoon; several news outlets reported that she had died, and she herself recalls passing out and then seeing a bright light before being snapped back to the schoolyard sidewalk.
“My mama and brother, they’d heard I’d died,” she says. Thetford had three different surgeries, a foot of her intestines removed, and her ureter reconstructed. She didn’t return to teaching that school year, but her physical ailments paled next to her psychological ones.
Thetford’s wearing a blue V-neck sweater and jeans, and talks with the engaged but slightly dispassionate tone of someone who has recounted these stories many times before. After the shooting, she had trouble sleeping and was plagued by constant night sweats. She felt wracked with guilt over not being able to keep her students safe, and she sunk into frequent depressions. At one point, she was taking Oxycodone to deal with the pain from her injuries, then quit it cold turkey, which pushed her dark moods into worrisome territory. “I told my mom, ‘I don’t know why I couldn’t have died like Shannon,’” she says. “My doctor said, ‘You have to get counseling.’”
Counseling helped, but when she returned to teaching in the fall, she faced new challenges. “There were constant reminders,” she says. “My room faced the playground. All day long, I would look at where this happened.” The school had also become something of a shrine to the departed, filled with photos, artwork, and so many of the gifts people had sent. “That’s comforting to some people. To me, it had the opposite effect.”
Thetford struggled through that first year back at Westside. She felt a duty to her former sixth-grade class — now seventh-graders — who had been so devastated by the shooting. If they had to be there, so did she. But even teaching was proving difficult. One day, when her class was studying World War I, she was looking for a film clip to show her students but couldn’t bear to watch all the violence.
“You don’t realize it until you’ve been through something like this, but social studies is war, war, war, war,” she says. “I thought, I can’t do this anymore.” The following year, she took a job as a reading teacher at a school across town. “I felt like I needed to be there for those kids until they got out of the building,” she says. But once they’d moved on to eighth grade, which was housed in the high school, she moved on too.
Thetford’s departure presaged what would become, in retrospect, a mass exodus by the staff over the next decade. Although some of the faculty stayed for longer and some departures were not entirely attributable to the shooting, practically everyone — from janitors and secretaries to teachers and administrators — eventually left the middle school. As I sat with Spencer and Fuller in Spencer’s classroom, they recounted the fates of former colleagues: Some moved to neighboring districts, a few quit teaching altogether, two died of cancer, one female staff member ran away to Branson with a woman from a rodeo.
Graham, the school psychologist, says this instability was unprecedented. “At Westside, you retired or your spouse was transferred or you died,” she says. Curtner stayed for four more years after the shooting, then moved across the street to become principal of the high school. During these years, she was the school’s public face of the shooting — and as such, a repository for the community’s grief, anger, and regret. Some blamed her, saying if she’d paid attention to warning signs, she could’ve prevented the tragedy. For years, the threat of a civil lawsuit against her hung over her head. She became a lightning rod in the national gun debate after refusing to blame firearms for the incident during a press conference. She’d routinely be praised and pilloried for decisions the school made in regard to its safety procedures, mental-health counseling, and commemorations of the incident. After the “shooting class” graduated in 2004, Curtner took a job as the director of a nearby alternative school.
“I never anticipated wanting to go or do anything anywhere else,” she says. “At first, I was like, ‘I’ve got to stay here and hold this together.’ But once that class graduated, I think it was best for me to go on as well so that there wasn’t that constant reminder.” She found that she felt mentally healthier once she put some physical distance between herself and the school, a response she discovered was common amongst her fellow former Westsiders. “Once a few of them started getting out, they started saying, ‘I didn’t realize how much better I am emotionally not to be there.’”
The migration had long-lasting effects. Taken in combination with the shooting itself, Westside, which had long been considered the best school district in the area, gradually diminished in stature. As teachers left, students and their families went right along with them. As people moved away or started paying less for property around Westside, the tax base shrunk, which further hurt the schools. In recent years, things have begun to turn around, but only just. As Kernodle put it, “Westside used to be the school. It’s getting back on its feet a bit now, but it’s 15 years later.”
7. “The biggest question is, ‘Why did they do it?’”
One thing that separates Westside from every other major school shooting in the U.S. has been the fate of the shooters themselves. Neither Golden nor Johnson could be tried as adults; Arkansas law would’ve released each of them on their 18th birthdays. Federal firearms violations were eventually tacked onto their charges, which kept them locked up until they turned 21, but after that they emerged from prison, in 2005 and 2007, respectively, not only as free men, but with no criminal record whatsoever.
Even before the shooters were released, the community was grappling with how to treat their families. The Goldens eventually relocated about an hour north of Jonesboro, but the Johnsons largely stayed in the area. In fact, Mitchell’s younger brother Monte entered the sixth grade at Westside the year after the shooting. That meant that the same teachers who had been shot at — and in one case shot — by Mitchell now had to teach his younger brother.
“The thing that’s significant about Monte is that he looked and acted just like Mitchell,” says Curtner. “It was difficult for the teachers. They would talk about it and how they were careful around him. And the kids would say he was somewhat of an intimidator. By high school, he was considered a bully.”
Johnson’s mother, Gretchen Woodard, made some efforts to get more involved at the school, and while she generally wasn’t met with open hostility, the situation was understandably awkward. Spencer says that when she had Woodard in for the first parent-teacher conference of the next year, she couldn’t help but ask the questions that had been haunting her.
“I just point-blank asked her, ‘Were they trying to kill the teachers? What was going on?’ She said Andrew told Mitchell to kill all the teachers.” Many people seemed to wish Johnson’s family would just disappear, though most also realized they may not have had the financial resources to move. One teacher told me that she thought by sticking around, the family was rubbing the community’s collective noses in it.
Monte, who still lives in Jonesboro, declined to be interviewed, but did write in a Facebook message to me, “The biggest factor I want to get out to the public is not to push away, blame or point fingers at the family of the killers but to embrace them, accept them in society. I graduated from Westside High School. It was one difficult task, I assure you. There was a lot of aggression, anger [and] hatred for me and my family.”
When the shooters were eventually released, the sense that justice had not been done pervaded the community, but beyond that, many of the survivors were outright fearful of what the two might do. Brandi George, a sixth-grader at the time of the shooting, had walked out of the school that day arm-in-arm with Natalie Brooks and Paige Herring. The idea that there would be nothing to stop their killers from legally purchasing guns was chilling. “It w