At 12:35 p.m. on March 24, 1998, the fire alarm sounded at Westside Middle School just as students had settled into their seats for their fifth-period class.
At 12:41 p.m., as nearly 100 students and teachers crowded outside on the playground, shots rang out from the hill above.
English teacher Shannon Wright, 32.
Natalie Brooks, 11.
Paige Herring, 12.
Stephanie Johnson, 12.
Britthney Varner, 11.
In the 20 years since the tragedy, the face of safety in Arkansas schools has drastically changed. Legislation flows through the state Capitol, experts brainstorm solutions, police officers and psychologists stand sentry over students, the judicial system answers to new demands, teachers take up arms and school facilities morph into fortresses.
Haas shakes his head and shrugs in uncertainty when asked if the state is on the right track.
“People think, ‘It’s never going to happen to me.’ Gosh, I wish that was true,” Haas says. “Do I think we’ll have to deal with it again some day? The proof is in every time you turn on the news.”
A SPRING DAY IN ’98
Tristan McGowan raises his right arm and traces the nearly 4-inch - long scar underneath.
He was in seventh-grade music class at Westside on that 1998 spring day when the fire alarm blared. Construction workers hammered and drilled on the new fifth-grade building nearby, so McGowan didn’t think anything of the loud noises that erupted.
Then, as if in a dream, children around him fell to the ground, and pools of blood formed. He saw his teacher, Mrs. Wright, crouch down on her knees, holding a hand to her stomach.
Wright had stepped in front of sixth-grader Emma Pittman to shield her; the teacher absorbed the bullets in her chest and abdomen.
“Her face was just kind of blank,” McGowan says.
Suddenly, McGowan’s right shoulder jerked back and searing pain hit him in waves.
“It felt like a hot iron got stuck beneath my arm,” Mc-Gowan says. “I dropped to my knees and started yelling.”
Colby Brooks, who is not related to Natalie Brooks, says he was in gym class when the fire alarm went off that day. Confusion enveloped the students as the sound of gunfire echoed on the playground.
A classmate ran up to him, lifted the side of her shirt and said, “I think I’ve been shot.”
There were three holes in her side. She survived. In all, 10 were wounded.
“Get in the gym! Get in the gym!” the coaches and teachers screamed.
Those who had been shot were in the bathrooms or lying against the gym wall. Brooks and the other uninjured students were sitting in a circle in the middle of the room when a teacher knelt down beside them.
“She came and prayed with all of us. That was a big … big deal,” Brooks says. “In that moment of chaos, it was kind of like a breath of fresh air.”
A coach was posted at each of the four doors to the gymnasium. All were unarmed.
“I look back and we were sitting in that gym,” Brooks chokes on his words. “You know … we were … it could’ve been a lot of worse. We were sitting in that gym with no weapons and a door and coach between us and what we thought was a crazed gunman.”
A QUESTION OF GUNS
In the 20 years before the Westside shooting, there had been only one mass kindergarten-12th-grade school shooting — which the FBI defines as a single incident in which a shooter kills four or more people. The 1989 Stockton, Calif., schoolyard massacre killed six people and wounded 32.
Since the Westside shooting, there have been nine school shootings with 96 killed and 99 wounded. (Those figures exclude Arkansas school shootings that don’t meet the FBI definition.) The country also has seen seven college campus shootings — none in Arkansas that meet the FBI definition of mass shooting — since 1998 that left 72 dead and 61 wounded.
While gun-control measures are debated and demanded around the nation, state leaders and those with connections to the Westside shooting say guns aren’t necessarily the problem.
Loaded gun racks in the backs of pickups were the norm when Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key was in Gurdon High School. As soon as school let out for the day, students headed to the deer woods.
“There was never any talk, even joking, about doing anything other than using a gun for hunting or target shooting,” Key said. “I don’t know what shifted or when it shifted, but we seem to have more broken people.”
Westside Consolidated School District Superintendent Scott Gauntt said his thoughts on gun control are irrelevant, and he points out that good behavior cannot be legislated.
“We can make all the laws we want. We can ban guns,” Gauntt said. “But at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to one person making a bad decision.”
For Haas, the former sheriff, guns can be part of the solution. He owns several and introduced his children to firearms at early ages.
He saw a sign on a barn one time that read, “Hunt with your son today and not for him tomorrow.”
“I’ve hunted with my kids ever since. The gun control thing, I don’t believe is the answer,” he said. “We’ve got to get some kind of people control.”
Still, others believe gun control is the most significant solution out there.
Retired Arkansas schoolteacher Sheryl Murtha of Lonoke said the first thing to do is to more strongly enforce current gun laws, then pass stricter legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of teens, the mentally ill and other at-risk groups.
And assault weapons should be banned completely, she said.
“We must stop being afraid of losing ‘our’ guns,” Murtha said, adding that the government should place “massive” taxes on guns and bullets, such as they do for tobacco, and use that money to fund school-safety resources.
It was two years ago when Eve Jorgensen of Little Rock joined the Arkansas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Her son was 5 years old and walking into school for the first time.
“It’s supposed to be a sanctuary,” Jorgensen said. “I decided instead of worrying and praying that I was going to do something to help.”
Jorgensen is now the state leader of the action group that attempts to fight state pro-gun legislation, addresses national issues and raises awareness about gun safety in the home.
The group is not anti-gun, Jorgensen insisted, but guns have no place on school or college campuses.
“The best way to protect our children in schools is to pass comprehensive gun safety laws,” Jorgensen said. “We work within the Second Amendment, but we don’t think it is without certain regulations. We know people are going to have guns. We want them to be safe with them and to be kept out of the hands of dangerous people.”
Despite being injured at Westside, McGowan isn’t anti-gun.
“You can take away guns from every person in America, and people are still going to find a way to get one,” he says. “That’s just the way it is. And if it wasn’t a gun, people would find other ways to hurt people.”
SECURITY IN PLACE
At Westside, student safety is covered from every angle.
School resource officers are on all three campuses, cameras are in constant use, doors once accessible from the outside are now locked, mental-health professionals are in every building, classrooms are equipped with defense machinations like U bolts, regular security meetings are held, entryways are gated, and teachers and students are drilled constantly to defend against danger.
And, as a last resort, students are taught to fight back.
“If the person does enter the room, instead of cowering, run around like crazy. Throw whatever you can,” Gauntt, the superintendent, said, adding that the chaotic scene would disorient the shooter, either causing him to back out or pause for a few moments, and hopefully buy time for law enforcement to appear.
“It’s sad that I have to go down to the kindergarten wing and teach them how to evade somebody coming into their room,” Gauntt said. “That’s not why I went into education. But that’s the world we live in.”
Across the state, many districts have implemented the same resources as Westside.
Some schools — like the Clarksville School District — armed teachers and staff members. Others are changing policies and offering training to deputize willing employees.
Murtha, the retired teacher, said arming teachers is the very last thing that should be done.
“They have enough burdens. As one first-year teacher shared with me, ‘I didn’t sign on for this,’” Murtha said. “A handgun against an assault gun? Not even a plausible match.”
Cheryl May, the director of the University of Arkansas System Criminal Justice Institute, said perhaps the greatest response the state has seen since the Westside shooting is the effusion of school resource officers.
“We have to do everything we can,” May said. “The fact that we even have to think about protecting our kids like this is almost beyond comprehension.”
May, whose organization trains the state’s school resource officers, said their duties pass far beyond law-enforcement skills into the roles of mentor and unofficial counselor.
“Kids are going to be more apt to say something to somebody that they trust,” May said. “If they have that sort of relationship with their school resource officer, then that can prevent tragedies.”
The problem, though, is that it is expensive for the schools, said Key, the education commissioner. Only about half of the state’s 238 districts have school resource officers, for a total of 316 officers.
While some pay the salary, benefits and training expenses out of the district’s budget, others partner with local and county law enforcement.
The Westside school pays for two of its school resource officers, while the Craighead County sheriff’s office provides the other.
“We’re working with Dr. [Cheryl] May to help with training and whatever resources might be available as they come up,” Key said. “And we’re looking internally at budgets to see if there are some things that could be freed up to help create those partnerships.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Asa Hutchinson promised $300,000 to invest in training armed school resource officers and developing safety plans.
The pledge came after the Feb. 14 shooting at Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 people and injured
Hutchinson said he believes officials there did not do enough to prevent the shooting.
The governor also established a school safety commission — comprised of educators, law enforcement officials and parents — to evaluate and recommend school safety policies and campus designs. The commission’s first report is due July 11.
A similar group was established in 1998 after a law — sponsored by then-state Rep. Shane Broadway — was passed in 1997 directing the state Department of Education to create the Safe Schools Committee.
The group, which first met in March 1998, disbanded a few years later. It reconvened four years ago with May as the chairman.
Broadway said school shootings weren’t on his radar when he sponsored the legislation a full year before the Westside tragedy. At the time, families were flocking to his district — which included Benton and Bryant — because of the safe, quality schools there, he said.
He purposely stipulated that the committee be comprised mainly of teachers and other education leaders.
“The best thing to do when you’re trying to explore an issue, to solve an issue, is to put the people in the room who deal with it every day,” Broadway said.
Key said his department is working with the state Department of Human Services for changes to Medicaid services to ensure that children don’t fall through the cracks. The Education Department is establishing a mental-health first-aid training program.
The eight-hour course, which Key compares with CPR certification, teaches the participant to identify warning signs and how to access available resources.
Key said he is also excited about the possibilities created through the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.
“We’re encouraging schools to bring in their local faith community, their community activist organizations and their business leaders,” Key said. “Those are things that ESSA now allows.”
For those there that day at Westside, thoughts on the solutions are varied.
McGowan, who now has three children, sees a generation lost without parental engagement.
“Parents seem to shove these electronics and gadgets in the kids’ faces and say, ‘Here. Go over there and leave me alone.’ That doesn’t work too well,” McGowan says. “I don’t like that. I’d rather have interaction with my kids.”
After each school shooting, Brooks is glued to the television, absorbing every detail. Some Westside classmates do the same, Brooks says. Others shut down.
“It’s almost like I’m seeking answers,” he says. “I’m kind of like, ‘We’re 20 years down the road, surely they’re going to find out why this is continuing to happen.’”
One thing he does know — and he stresses to his 8-year-old daughter — is those children on the outskirts should be brought into the fold.
“Talk to the kid that’s sitting in the corner by himself,” Brooks says. “Be nice. Be friendly. Be inclusive.”
Haas, the former sheriff, believes discipline is lacking in homes and children are desensitized.
“It’s a shame. It’s like we’re losing generation after generation of our values,” Haas says. “Nobody wants to hear the truth.”
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
White sheets over the dead, dying and injured in the schoolyard is the one memory that then - prosecutor Mike Walden most wishes he could erase.
He and other prosecutors looked out the third-floor window of the Craighead County prosecutor’s office as two ambulances raced by that afternoon, sirens blaring.
Then another sped by.
The prosecutors broke from protocol and headed to the scene.
As Walden stood in the midst of the white sheets, a deputy sheriff walked up and handed him a piece of paper with two names and ages on it.
Andrew Golden, 11.
Mitchell Johnson, 13.
Walden pauses at the memory, then takes in a slow, shaky breath. “I immediately knew that we’ve got some issues here that people aren’t going to understand.”
The boys would be under the purview of the Arkansas juvenile court system.
“It suddenly became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to achieve what the average person, certainly the average victim, was going to consider justice in this case,” Walden says. “No matter what we did they weren’t going to be confined past the age of 21.”
The day after the tragedy, the grieving community gathered in the Westside gymnasium and bombarded Walden and other officials with questions.
“Will they come back here?”
“What am I supposed to tell my little girl the next time the fire alarm rings?”
“I was asked questions I couldn’t answer,” Walden says.
The August 1998 capital murder trial was quick for Johnson and Golden, who had been arrested within minutes of the shooting.
They were sentenced to what was then known as the Alexander Juvenile Correctional Facility. Johnson was released on Aug. 11, 2005, and Golden was released on May 25, 2007, both on their 21st birthdays.
Efforts to reach Johnson and Golden for comment for this article were unsuccessful.
They remain the only two mass school shooters who are not incarcerated or dead.
Walden says that, while he’s not advocating for the death penalty, there should have been a better range of punishment for the horrific crime.
“It’s the legislators’ job to make those decisions about what minimums and maximums are available to a prosecutor,” Walden says. “I just know in this particular case, the maximum that was available to me was insufficient.”
The Arkansas General Assembly in 1999 passed Act 1192, the Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction Act. This act allows prosecutors to charge juveniles under the age of 14 as adults in capital murder and first-degree murder cases. The act includes adult sentencing guidelines commensurate with the seriousness of the offense.
The Legislature also passed Act 1272 that requires the Division of Youth Services to establish a separate facility for individuals who are ages 18-21.
McGowan — who is Golden’s cousin and was shot by one of Golden’s bullets — feels strongly that the pair should have been tried as adults. He watched the video depositions of Johnson and Golden that were released last fall as part of a civil suit.
The pair swapped blame for the shooting.
“It didn’t really seem there was remorse that there could’ve been, that should’ve been,” McGowan says.
“Everything got wiped clean as a slate for them. Like nothing ever happened.”
IN THE GARDEN
Clouds were overhead and rain drizzled as Gauntt, the superintendent, walked into the Westside Memorial Garden recently, just a week to the day after the mass shooting in Florida.
Like Westside, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School activated a fire alarm before ambushing students and staff members as they exited the buildings.
“It was a gut punch because it was so similar,” Gauntt says.
On March 24 — coincidentally, the 20th anniversary of the Westside shooting — the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students will march on Washington, D.C., to demand stronger gun control laws.
Arkansas students and community members will do the same in Little Rock, beginning at 10 a.m. at Capitol Avenue and Pulaski Street and march to the steps of the state Capitol. Another march will begin at noon at the Jonesboro High School.
The “March for Our Lives” event will take place all over the nation that day.
A heavy somberness washes over Gauntt as he gazes at a rock and pebble path that leads to a door into the middle school. It was 20 years ago when students and teachers filed out after Golden pulled the fire alarm.
The memorial garden, protected by a curved brick wall, was built shortly after the tragedy. A metal pavilion opens up to a small playground. Bouquets of fresh flowers sit atop a sundial with the names of the victims engraved upon it.
Symbolism abounds: five support beams, five picnic tables, five trees and five names: Natalie Brooks, Paige Herring, Stephanie Johnson, Britthney Varner and Shannon Wright.
A plaque at the entrance tells the garden’s story, noting that every sidewalk was replaced so “no child has to walk where others perished.” The tribute concludes with an Irving Berlin lyric: “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”
Gauntt, who took over as superintendent last year, points to the top of the hill past a chain-link fence. The small bare forest unveils the clear line of sight from which Golden and Johnson aimed the scopes of their high-powered rifles.
A spark of anger darts across Gauntt’s sad face.
“This. All of this,” he says, opening his arms wide, taking in the garden and the playground.
“It’s not like this — with the darkness and rain. Children play here. They’re laughing and running. The sun is shining bright.”
The district’s spring breaks are timed so students and teachers are not on campus when the anniversary rolls around.
No special ceremonies signifying the day are held at the school. And this 20-year anniversary will be no different. Through the years the students have grown beyond the walls, but a lot of the teachers and staff members remain.
“Even after 20 years, some people have moved to … I don’t want to say it, but … acceptance,” Gauntt says. “They can talk about it, while some others don’t want to talk about it at all.”
To keep his students safe Gauntt knows he has to show them the harsh realities of life.
“But you want them to understand that it’s just a small part of it. There’s so much good in the world, so much good that they can be a part of,” he says. “I don’t want our kids to focus on the negative. That leads to a very dark life, and life is too precious to have that kind of perspective.”
Brooks says he and other Westside classmates seek solace in one another, meeting once a year and talking through a private social media group that’s only for the survivors.
The anxiety remains today, Brooks says.
“If we’re in a big group gathering, I can assure you I have a plan, and I have a strategy on how to get out and how to defend myself,” Brooks says.
McGowan says he doesn’t talk freely about what happened, and he’s more vigilant about his surroundings. But he’s determined not to let it define him.
“I can’t let it stick me somewhere that I can’t recover from it,” McGowan says. “I’d rather be a positive person for somebody to see and say, ‘OK. This is what he’s been through. This is where he’s at. And he’s making it.’”
Colby Brooks recalls the confusion that gripped students as the sound of gunfire echoed on the playground and the reassuring prayer with a teacher.
Scott Gauntt, superintendent of Westside Consolidated School District, walks through the memorial garden at Westside Middle School. The five beams supporting the pavilion symbolize the fi ve victims and form a cross at the top that can be seen from any direction.
Fresh flowers sit atop a sundial bearing the names of the victims in the memorial garden. Every sidewalk in the garden was replaced so no child would have to walk where others had died.