School Climate & Safety

Arkansas Community Still Reeling After Fatal School Shooting Spree

By Karen L. Abercrombie — April 01, 1998 3 min read
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Students returned to class last Thursday at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., two days after Americans were shocked for the third time since last October by a multiple slaying at school.

Following the shooting deaths of four students and a teacher, allegedly by two boys from the school, counseling sessions are being held at the school and will continue until they are no longer needed, Connie Tolbert, the secretary to the superintendent of the 1,552-student Westside school district, said late last week.

A vigil was held at Arkansas State University the day after the shooting, and a memorial service was also scheduled at the university this week.

The March 24 incident in the town of about 46,000 people some 130 miles northeast of Little Rock began when a fire alarm was pulled at the 250-student school.

As students and staff members came outside, the two boys are alleged to have used rifles and handguns to shoot 13 students and two teachers.

Four girls and one teacher, who was trying to protect a student, were killed.

The boys, identified as Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, were being held last week at the Craighead County Juvenile Detention Center, each charged with five counts of murder and 10 counts of battery.

Under Arkansas law, they cannot be tried as adults because they are under 14. The two had a juvenile-detention hearing March 25, and their next hearing has been set for April 29.

State officials have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to see if the suspects could be tried as adults under federal statutes.

Authorities are still trying to determine a motive for the shootings.

The incident reminded many of two other shooting sprees at schools within the past six months--at Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., in October and at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., in December. (“In the Wake of Tragedy,” Dec. 10, 1997.)

“This type of violence is something new and very disturbing,” U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said last week. Appearing at a House hearing, he noted that the number of deaths from multiple shootings at schools had increased in the past year and a half, with five such incidents. Between 1992 and 1994, only two such multiple shootings occurred, he said.

President Clinton has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to look into any links between the recent violent incidents at schools.

Addressing school violence requires broad-based approaches, education experts say.

“This is a community problem, not a school problem,” Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., said. “Society needs to address and solve these problems, especially the issue of children’s access to weapons.”

“Everybody needs to be prepared for this. No community is immune,” added Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry school of education. “We need to begin teaching our kids anger management and conflict resolution at the elementary school level.”

In a survey released last month by the U.S. Department of Education, one in 10 American schools reported at least one serious violent incident last year.

Federal Response Weighed

Such news and the spate of multiple shootings may prompt government officials to reassess the federal role in helping prevent school violence.

At a House appropriations subcommittee hearing last week, Secretary Riley discussed with lawmakers whether federal funding through school violence programs could be better spent.

Mr. Riley said he worries that some schools have fallen into a false sense of security, and he wants Congress and the public to step back and look at school violence and security.

He said he has asked the Department of Education’s school violence experts to study the Jonesboro incident.

Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., who chairs the education appropriations subcommittee, said the problem could be blamed partly on “the ready availability of guns.”

He said he wants to look into directing federal funds for school safety programs to schools that are at high risk of such incidents.

Mr. Riley pointed out that such a policy would not have helped Westside Middle School, since it would not have been considered at high risk for violence.

Spurred by the Arkansas shootings, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., received unanimous Senate approval last week to add to a supplemental-appropriations bill an initiative that would provide $10 million to enable schools to create custom security packages at Sandia National Laboratories’ School Security Technology Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

Staff Writer Joetta L. Sack contributed to this report.

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