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A Deadly Partnership: Lethal Violence in an Arkansas Middle School

Cybelle Fox, Wendy D. Roth, and Katherine Newman

On March 24, 1998, in the third and deadliest in a series of recent school shootings in a Southern community, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, both students at Westside Middle School in Northeast Arkansas, opened fire on 96 of their classmates and teachers. As a result, four students and a teacher died and 10 others were wounded.

This chapter is based on interviews completed in June 2001 with 98 students, teachers, administrators, lawyers, judges, court personnel, parents of the victims and one of the shooters, church leaders, and community residents, as well as media reports and official court documents. Gretchen Woodard, Mitchell Johnson’s mother, was particularly helpful. Some key individuals were unwilling to be interviewed, particularly members of Andrew Golden’s family, hence we were able to capture only how others in the community saw them. The passage of time and the differences in vantage point among the many people touched by this episode has left its traces in multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives on its causes and consequences. In what follows, we have done our best to adjudicate amongst the competing accounts of this tragedy. Yet often no single truth emerges, and the researchers’ job is best served by reporting them all.

THE SETTING

Residents describe the Westside community as the most unlikely setting for any kind of violence, let alone a mass school shooting. Nearby Jonesboro is a small but growing city in the northeast part of Arkansas,



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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence 4 A Deadly Partnership: Lethal Violence in an Arkansas Middle School Cybelle Fox, Wendy D. Roth, and Katherine Newman On March 24, 1998, in the third and deadliest in a series of recent school shootings in a Southern community, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, both students at Westside Middle School in Northeast Arkansas, opened fire on 96 of their classmates and teachers. As a result, four students and a teacher died and 10 others were wounded. This chapter is based on interviews completed in June 2001 with 98 students, teachers, administrators, lawyers, judges, court personnel, parents of the victims and one of the shooters, church leaders, and community residents, as well as media reports and official court documents. Gretchen Woodard, Mitchell Johnson’s mother, was particularly helpful. Some key individuals were unwilling to be interviewed, particularly members of Andrew Golden’s family, hence we were able to capture only how others in the community saw them. The passage of time and the differences in vantage point among the many people touched by this episode has left its traces in multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives on its causes and consequences. In what follows, we have done our best to adjudicate amongst the competing accounts of this tragedy. Yet often no single truth emerges, and the researchers’ job is best served by reporting them all. THE SETTING Residents describe the Westside community as the most unlikely setting for any kind of violence, let alone a mass school shooting. Nearby Jonesboro is a small but growing city in the northeast part of Arkansas,

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence whose residents number 55,000 but whose diverse manufacturing, service, and retail sectors attract a trade area population of nearly a half million from the surrounding areas, including southern Missouri. Located 130 miles northeast of Little Rock, Jonesboro is a Bible Belt town, proud of its religious heritage, embodied in the more than 75 churches within its boundaries. While Jonesboro proper sits astride the gentle rolling hills of Crowley’s Ridge, many of the surrounding communities are on the flat farmland—producing cotton, rice, and soybeans—that is characteristic of the Delta. With its thriving economy but small town feel and low crime rates, it is hard to find a person in the area who does not think Jonesboro is a great place to live. Yet the area has also had its share of natural disasters. In 1968, a tornado ripped through the area, killing more than 40 residents. Once again in 1973, tornados caused millions of dollars of property damage. These events stepped up community preparedness for crises—particularly in the area hospitals—which was to prove very valuable when the school shootings took place. The natural disasters also brought the community together in the wake of trouble, teaching the value of interagency cooperation and interpersonal social support. The Westside School District is one of five public school districts in the immediate area and serves the Bono, Cash, and Egypt communities, which lie adjacent to Jonesboro and are largely rural towns.1 The community is closely knit; many of its residents, including many of the teachers at Westside, are graduates of the middle school or parallel institutions in Bono, Cash, or Egypt, which were consolidated in the late 1960s to form Westside. The elementary, middle, and high schools in the district share one large property, but each campus maintains its unique character. During the 1997–1998 school year when the shooting occurred, there were approximately 250 students in Westside’s middle school, 125 students in each of the sixth and seventh grades. The school district as a whole includes 1,600 students and is largely middle-class, Christian, and almost exclusively white; approximately a third of the students at the middle school qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. Before the shooting, the biggest safety concern was whether the school buses would arrive safely every morning. The school’s location, demographic composition, and lack of any significant history of violence made most people in the community think the school impervious to serious violence. Hence, the school had no violence prevention programs beyond anger management counseling in place at the time of the shooting. THE SHOOTERS Mitchell Johnson was 13 years old and in the seventh grade at Westside Middle School on the day of the shooting. He had only recently

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence joined the school. Born in Minnesota, he lived for a time in Kentucky before moving to Bono in 1995. His mother, Gretchen Woodard, married three times. Mitchell’s father (and Gretchen Woodard’s second husband), Scott Johnson, had an explosive temper. According to media reports, by his own admission Scott Johnson was a screamer. While there is no evidence he was physically abusive toward Mitchell, he punched holes into walls and was verbally abusive, but after his tantrums rarely disciplined Mitchell in a way that would teach him what he had done wrong. Mitchell reacted quite strongly to his father’s temper; on several occasions, he was found trembling and physically ill in response, and it could take hours to calm him down. In Minnesota, Gretchen worked as a correctional officer in a federal prison, and Scott worked at a meat packing plant. Since the couple worked long hours, Mitchell and his younger brother spent a considerable amount of time in the care of their grandmother. While Mitchell was staying at his grandmother’s home, he was apparently sexually assaulted, repeatedly and violently, by an older boy in the neighborhood. His mother did not find out about this abuse until after the shooting, however; Mitchell did not tell because his attacker had threatened to kill his grandmother if he ever told anyone about it. He was both ashamed and afraid that his father would be angry with him if he knew. Mitchell’s parents split up and went through a difficult divorce. Shortly thereafter, Gretchen Woodward received a job promotion to a federal prison in Kentucky. Mitchell was 10 years old when they moved. His mother soon encountered and later married Terry Woodard, whom she had first met as an inmate, convicted on drugs and weapons charges, in the prison where she worked in Minnesota. Since Terry had grown up in the Jonesboro area, the new family made their way to Bono and enrolled Mitchell and his younger brother at Westside. Even though they didn’t have much money, life in Bono was peaceful and things were finally looking up. Mitchell got along well with his stepfather, who worked at a heavy equipment hauling company. For the first time, Gretchen Woodard could be a stay-at-home mom after Mitchell’s younger half-sister was born. Mitchell seemed to be doing well at Westside. His teachers described him as a normal kid and a good student, who generally made As and Bs. Many of the adults at the school commented on how polite, respectful, and charming he was. Indeed, he received commendations for his good behavior. At ease in talking with adults, Mitchell had a reputation for being a real pleaser. His mother was not very involved at the school but there wasn’t that much to be involved in. Gretchen came to Mitchell’s parent-teacher conferences faithfully and was supportive of the school in its disciplinary decisions. Mitchell was interested in the Bible and attended Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro. He loved music, performed

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence in the school choir, and even sang at a nursing home on the weekends through his church youth group. He was active in sports, including football, basketball, and baseball. He had friends and was especially close to his younger brother, whom he always looked out for. But there seem to have been many different sides to Mitchell Johnson, some of which are hard to reconcile with the “model child” aspects of this description. By some accounts, he had an explosive temper reminiscent of his father. Peers and teachers occasionally landed on the wrong side of Mitchell. He got into serious enough trouble to land himself on in-school suspension at least three times while he was a student at Westside Middle School. The first incident came when he was in sixth grade: he got mad and hit a thermostat in the hallway, breaking its glass case. Shannon Wright, the English teacher whom he would later shoot and kill, placed him on in-school suspension for that incident. The following year, Mitchell was on in-school suspension for cursing at a teacher. The third occasion happened just a few weeks prior to the shooting. Mitchell was wearing a baseball cap even though school policy requires that no hats be worn in school. The teacher tried to take the hat away and Mitchell resisted. It took two adults to get the hat away from him, and Mitchell was placed on in-school suspension for his behavior. During his in-school suspension the last time, Mitchell was assigned to write a paper about why he was in there to begin with. The teacher claimed that this paper contained a veiled threat against her, and she brought it to the principal. It is not clear what the school did in response. In addition to these three incidents, Mitchell was also paddled for cursing on the bus. Despite these incidents, Mitchell was not considered a troubled student or a serious disciplinary problem by the school. He was usually very remorseful for his belligerent behavior and would apologize “ten times over” for his actions. Mitchell was described by many of his peers as a bit of a bully. His classmates said he was a bragger, a kid who liked to flash gang signs and wear red to signal his supposed affiliation with the Westside Bloods, a gang in Jonesboro. There is no evidence that Mitchell was part of any gang, however, and his friends said that he was only a gang “wannabe.” It was rumored that a few weeks before the shooting, Mitchell brought a knife to the school and pulled it on a fellow student. Other students and adults suggest that Mitchell was himself bullied, or at least picked on. One teacher said he was sensitive and wanted more than anything to be popular and well liked, especially by girls. When classmates would tease him, his reaction was sometimes described as out of proportion to the supposed affront. Mitchell’s relationship with his father remained stormy after the boy moved to Bono, and he was apprehensive of his trips back to Minnesota

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence over Christmas and the summer. These visits did not go well; his father would threaten to send him home because he “misbehaved” and in the summer of 1996, he did send Mitchell home after only two weeks because he “was real hostile.” Although Mitchell’s mother and his stepfather were viewed as caring, concerned parents, Mitchell may have had a lot of free time during which his parents were unaware of his activities. One Bono resident claimed to have seen him frequently hanging around on his bicycle, remarking that he could stay over at friends’ houses overnight without having to call home for permission. Although Mitchell was known for being very polite and well mannered, some felt that this unstructured time allowed him to get into trouble. He sometimes cursed at other kids or made threats, causing their parents to get upset. A community resident questioned whether he was ever disciplined at home for these incidents. In the days and weeks immediately preceding the shooting, his mother did not notice any sudden changes in Mitchell’s behavior but admits that there were some troubling signs that something was wrong. The summer before the shooting, Mitchell was caught molesting a 2-year-old girl in Minnesota and was charged for the incident in juvenile court. When he returned to Arkansas, his mother began taking him to see a psychologist, who concluded that it was probably an isolated incident. At Christmas, Mitchell and his younger brother went back up to visit their father in Minnesota. They took the bus and on the way home were left stranded at the Chicago bus terminal for two days due to bad weather before any adult realized where they were. One of his teachers said that she noticed a change in Mitchell soon after that Christmas break. Mitchell was more reticent and spent less time with her, but she assumed that it was a fleeting or at least normal teenage phase so she backed off. Then, approximately one month before the shooting, Mitchell started to call sex-talk lines and racked up hundreds of dollars of debt on his father’s credit card. When Scott Johnson found out, he became furious at Mitchell; he called the police and threatened that Mitchell might have to move back up with him to Minnesota. In retrospect, we know that Mitchell took this threat very seriously and was feeling “hopeless,” as if his life were over. From that point, Mitchell continued to spiral downward. About two weeks before the shooting, Mitchell was kicked off the basketball team (or tried out and didn’t make it, according to one school official) for self-mutilation; he apparently engraved his initials into his shoulder. It was also about that time that he was suspended for the baseball cap incident. And to top it off, his girlfriend of three days or possibly a week, Candace Porter, dumped him.2 With hindsight it is easy to see that Mitchell was sad,

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence angry and was feeling desperate, but no one in his life at that time, either at the school or in his home, was aware of just how troubled he was or how low he felt. Andrew Golden was 11 years old and in the sixth grade at Westside Middle School at the time of the shooting. He had lived in Bono all of his life, and his father had as well. In fact, many of Andrew’s teachers graduated from Westside with Andrew’s father, Dennis. Dennis and Andrew’s mother, Pat, worked as postmasters in a nearby town and were seen by people in the community as hard-working people with good jobs. Andrew was their only child together. Pat had two other children from a previous marriage and had had a tubal ligation before she married Dennis. But since Dennis did not have any children of his own, Pat had the operation reversed in order to have a child. Andrew was their miracle baby, and friends told the media he was “the center of their world.” Andrew was very close to his grandfather, Doug Golden, who was well known in the community since he worked for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission; it was not uncommon to see the two together around town. The entire Golden family was known for their avid pursuit of hunting. Andrew was taught to hunt at a very young age; he was given a shotgun for Christmas the year he turned 6. Andrew practiced his shooting at the local range and won awards for his marksmanship. Hunting is a very common activity for boys at Westside, but the Golden family’s reputation was notable even for the area. Andrew posed for photographs as a toddler dressed in camouflage with a rifle. The Golden home was the office of the Jonesboro Practical Pistol Shooters Association, a local affiliate of a national gun organization, which is indicative of their enthusiasm for the sport. Most adults described Andrew, just as they did Mitchell, as an outwardly normal or typical child. If anything he was immature and doted on, maybe even a bit spoiled; his family, some said, gave him anything he ever wanted. Because both his parents worked long hours, Andrew was often left home alone, but his parents called home to check up on him frequently. His half-siblings lived with him for a time but, according to people in the community, they were not treated well by Dennis and the Golden grandparents so they left and went to live with other relatives. There is no evidence that Andrew was ever abused in his home. Some teachers and neighbors felt that the Goldens may have been overindulgent and failed to discipline Andrew. In his parents’ eyes, Andrew could do no wrong. A neighbor reported how Andrew would “curse like a sailor” at a very young age—perhaps 4 or 5 years old—and how his father and grandfather would laugh and encourage it, saying it was cute and would make a man of him. His mother would reportedly

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence throw her hands up and say she couldn’t do anything with him since the men continued to encourage him. Andrew had friends but was probably not one of the most popular kids in school. He played trumpet in the school band. He was an average student and often made As and Bs but was for a time in elementary school in remedial reading and math classes. While Mitchell generally strove to do well in school, Andrew was described as more apathetic about his performance. Andrew was also not considered a disciplinary problem at school. He was never suspended, and school officials can only remember one significant incident, in first grade, where he got into some trouble. He had brought a toy gun to school, which was taken away from him by a teacher who told him not to touch it. Andrew got another boy to retrieve the gun for him and then, during recess, filled it with mud or a sand and gravel mixture and fired it at a classmate, hitting her in the eye. For this transgression he was paddled. Arkansas is one of 26 states where corporal punishment is still legal, but when Andrew’s grandmother discovered her grandson had been paddled, she reportedly became very angry, yelled at the teacher in front of other students, and later convinced Andrew’s parents to place him on the “no paddle list.” Andrew’s greatest offense at school after this incident was reportedly talking out of turn. He could be mischievous and act the class clown, but this behavior was sometimes written off because teachers who had gone to school with his father had known him to be a harmless prankster, too. Andrew’s father came to parent-teacher conferences and, when Andrew was in elementary school, his grandmother would often go on school field trips. Most of his teachers described Andrew as a boy who always had a grin on his face and, if anything, would have gone unnoticed. Neighborhood accounts of Andrew paint a much darker portrait, however. In his neighborhood, Andrew was known as something of a menace, a boy who cursed and yelled at other children, saying that if they came over to his yard he would shoot them with his BB gun. He rode around with a sheathed hunting knife strapped to his leg and reportedly killed cats in his backyard, including one that he starved to death in a barrel. Golden’s grandfather also had a reputation among some in the community as being irascible and petulant, and some wondered whether Andrew learned his menacing behavior from him. Andrew’s behavior around the neighborhood contributed to his reputation as “mean-spirited.” Two cousins who later became his shooting victims were ordered not to play with Andrew after they told their parents they saw him shoot and kill a cat. Despite the fact that the Westside community is small and reportedly closely knit, most teachers and administrators at the school were not aware of Andrew’s neighborhood reputation before the shooting.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Although they came from very different family backgrounds, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden shared the description of having something of a Jeckyll and Hyde personality. Both could be described as very sweet or polite, particularly by their teachers and in school, but they also had a more hostile side. Those who were privy to the sweet side were stunned by the shooting and found it hard to imagine that Mitchell and Andrew could be involved. Those exposed to the temper or the abuse of animals were also surprised but considered their roles plausible. By most accounts, Mitchell and Andrew were not friends, just acquaintances who met on the long bus ride to school.3 The bus ride provided the boys with a fairly lengthy period of unsupervised time, with the bus driver as the only adult present. Many parents complained of rowdy and inappropriate antics by older children on the bus, to which younger children were exposed. While Mitchell and Andrew were not assigned to sit together on the bus, many believed that their plans were likely hatched there nonetheless. Neither boy visited the other’s house, they were in separate grades at school, and they had no common recess or activities together. In fact, adults at the school said they never would have paired the two together, their personalities were so different. But Mitchell and Andrew did call one another at least a few times, and friends said they saw each other outside school. THE VICTIMS Four students and a teacher died in the shooting. The students who were killed were Stephanie Johnson, age 12; Paige Herring, age 12; Natalie Brooks, age 11; and Britthney Varner, age 11. Shannon Wright, who had been both Mitchell and Andrew’s English teacher, also died; she was married and had a son of her own, 2-year-old Zane. She was hailed as a hero by many in the community and the press for shielding her students from the gunfire, giving her life for theirs. The wounded were Candice Porter, age 11, who “dated” Mitchell for a few days before she broke up with him; Crystal Barnes, age 13; Whitney Irving, age 11; teacher Lynette Thetford, who had Andrew in her social studies class; Brittany Lambie, age 13; Jennifer Jacobs, age 12, who reportedly dated Andrew and broke up with him before the shooting; Ashley Betts, age 12; Tristan McGowan, age 13, who was Andrew’s cousin; Christina Amer, age 12; and Jenna Brooks, age 12, cousin of Natalie Brooks, who was shot and killed. THE SHOOTING The shootings took place on March 24, 1998, a Tuesday. Students and teachers had recently returned from spring break and were talking about

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence their vacations and getting back into the swing of things when Andrew Golden, clad in camouflage clothing, entered the middle school at approximately 12:35 p.m., just a few minutes after fifth period had started, and pulled the fire alarm. At least two students saw Andrew pull the alarm and leave the building. The students told their teachers what Andrew had done, but everyone filed out of the building through their assigned exit routes, as required. The 87 students and 9 teachers who exited the west entrance were met with a hail of gunfire. Many of the details of the shooting were probably planned during the spring break the week before the shooting, but the boys may have been talking about the idea together for months in advance, possibly as early as December 1997. One person close to both Mitchell and Andrew suggested that their initial discussions about the shooting were casual or just “talking big,” and then one day, less than a week before the shooting, one of them suggested they really do it and the other agreed. Yet precisely who was the leader and who was the follower in this partnership is in dispute. On the morning of the shooting, Mitchell and Andrew were absent from school. Mitchell missed the bus and told his mother that his stepfather, who had actually already left for work, would give him a ride. When Mitchell’s mother, who was caring for her 2-year-old daughter and babysitting for a neighborhood boy, looked out the window and saw that the van was gone, she assumed that her husband still had it. Instead, Mitchell took the van and drove it to Andrew Golden’s home. Andrew’s parents, who had left for work, had left Andrew home alone to catch the bus on his own that morning, as they had recently started doing. Instead of taking the bus, Andrew hid in some bushes near his home and waited for Mitchell to pick him up. The boys attempted to get guns from Andrew’s house, but the majority of his father’s guns had recently been placed in a safe and the boys were unable to gain access to them, even after trying to break the safe open with a blowtorch. They took a .38 caliber derringer, a .38 caliber snub-nose, and a .357 magnum that were not secured and then drove over to Andrew’s grandparents’ house. They broke into the house with a crowbar and found an arsenal of weapons— a wall completely lined with rifles—secured only by a cable running across them. From the grandparents’ shed, the boys found some cable clippers and used them to break the cable and steal four handguns and three rifles. Contrary to popular perceptions in the community of a carefully executed plan, there were many glitches along the way on the day of the shooting. First, at 13, Mitchell was not a seasoned driver and he apparently had some trouble with the van. It was also low on gas and when the two boys tried to get some, they were unable to operate the pump and were refused service because they appeared too young. For reasons that

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence remain unclear, the gas station attendant did not call the police to report the boys. Mitchell and Andrew went to a second and even a third station before they were finally able to get gas. With their supplies in order, they drove toward the school, parked their van on the cul-de-sac of a street approximately a half-mile from the school, and made their way to a wooded area near the Westside Middle School property. Many adults at the school believe that the boys intended to do the shooting during lunch recess, but the ground was muddy due to rain the night before and the students did not go outside for lunch. To lure the students and teachers out of the building, Andrew Golden went inside the school and pulled the fire alarm. He then exited the building and joined Mitchell already in position, we assume, in the woods atop a hill overlooking the schoolyard. Only after the majority of the students had exited the building did the boys begin firing. Neither the students nor the teachers realized at first that they were being fired at. Many thought the loud pops they heard were firecrackers, while others thought it was all part of a school play. When they saw their fellow students and teachers fall around them, they finally understood it was an armed attack and began screaming at one another to get down. Since the doors to the school had automatically locked behind them as they left the building, most ran around the school toward the gym. Mitchell and Andrew fired fewer than 30 rounds and struck 15 people. One student, Stephanie Johnson, was pronounced dead on the scene and four others, including a teacher, were pronounced dead at St. Bernard’s hospital in nearby Jonesboro. Ten others were treated and eventually released. According to ballistics reports and the police investigation, Mitchell fired five shots from a 30.06 caliber semiautomatic rifle equipped with a scope, killing at least one, but probably two, and wounding at least three. Andrew fired by far the most shots and was responsible for three deaths and wounding at least two others. It is not clear why the boys stopped shooting when they did. Some law enforcement officials suspect that when a construction worker on the roof of the new fifth grade wing of the middle school saw the boys shooting and screamed at them to stop, they ended the assault. Mitchell fired a few shots at the construction worker and both boys fled the scene, running toward the van. Another speculation is that the boys stopped because there was no one left standing in the line of fire. The whole shooting probably lasted no longer than a few minutes. The boys were apprehended by law enforcement approximately 200 yards from the scene and 10 minutes after they had begun shooting. Police officers drove along a service road and reached them as they were coming out of the woods. Officers yelled at the boys to drop their weapons; Mitchell dropped his gun, but Andrew hesitated. They repeated the

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence order, and Andrew then complied. In the van, police found supplies (including ammunition, camouflage netting, camping gear, potato chips, and a pillow with cartoons on its case) and a map indicating that the boys were planning to drive out to a piece of land the Golden family owned in the mountains to camp. According to their lawyers, the boys were planning on hiding out for a few days until things quieted down, when they hoped to return home and everything, they presumed, would be fine. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, law enforcement officials believe that the shooting could have been even worse. When the boys were apprehended they were carrying a total of 11 guns and several hundred live shells.4 According to witnesses, many of the students knew immediately who was responsible for the shooting, and they told their teachers when they reached the safety of the gym, naming Andrew Golden, Mitchell Johnson, and a third shooter, reported to be an older student at a nearby high school.5 Apparently, Mitchell and Andrew gave many hints about what they were planning to do. The day before they had told some of their classmates that “something big was going to happen tomorrow.” And students heard Mitchell say: “Tomorrow you will find out if you live or die,” and that he “had a lot of killing to do.” Earlier that year, at least one student saw Andrew get up on a table in the cafeteria and say “You are all going to die.” The day before the shooting, Mitchell told a friend “You won’t be seeing me for awhile because I’m going to be running from the cops.” The friend did not know what Mitchell was talking about and ignored the comment. These statements and threats were seen as common coming from the boys and were not taken seriously by most. Their classmates saw Mitchell in particular as a real bragger who said lots of things that he didn’t really mean, especially about his supposed gang involvement and the things he had to do as part of the gang. However, at least two students claimed that, when they heard the threats, they told an adult at the school. One student claimed that in October 1997 he overheard Andrew say he planned to bring guns to school and kill people. In a signed affidavit, the student claimed that he went home and told his father, and that the boy and his father then contacted the middle school counselor and told her about the threats. The school’s version of this event is different. According to the school, the threat Andrew made was not against others, but against himself. The counselor called Andrew into her office and asked him about his statements. Andrew claimed that he was just kidding, but his parents were notified of the incident. In the school counselor’s affidavit, she claimed that she asked Andrew’s mother if Andrew had access to guns. His mother said he didn’t—that the guns in the house were locked up and that she would discuss the matter with her husband and that they would

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence group of people in particular.” Golden pleaded not guilty and did not issue any statement. Andrew’s lawyer tried to raise issues of insanity and incompetency, but the judge ruled that these arguments could not be raised in a juvenile case because juveniles cannot form the intent that makes an insanity plea possible, and that competency did not have to be determined because the special proceedings of juvenile court are set up to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. A quick trial ensued in which the prosecution presented its evidence. Andrew’s defense attorney conceded that he committed the act, so the facts were never in dispute and the trial lasted only three hours. His lawyer then appealed the judge’s ruling on his arguments to the Arkansas State Supreme Court, which agreed with the circuit court on the insanity finding but remanded the ruling on competency,7 arguing that competency does have to be determined, even for juveniles. However, after this decision, Andrew and his lawyer decided not to pursue the competency question further. The limitations binding the courts, which made it impossible to try Johnson and Golden as adults, were a source of deep frustration for many members of the community, who felt the boys had received a mere slap on the wrist for a heinous and premeditated crime. Family members of the victims were moved to become activists on behalf of legislation that would allow juvenile offenders to be tried as adults for serious crimes. The one law which did emerge from the shooting, the Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction Act, was considered a disappointment. Although it does provide some potential adult sanctions for those under age 14, it actually reduced the number of crimes for which the prosecutor has discretion to try the offender as an adult. Although capital murder had not been among them, there had previously been about 30 or 40 crimes over which the prosecutor had such discretion, but the act reduced this number to about 9. Furthermore, the act is very complex and difficult to implement; multiple criteria have to be met before it can be invoked. Given the availability of appeals, it could take a very long time before any of these cases would be settled. This outcome provided little satisfaction for the families of Westside victims and for many produced a sense of disillusionment with the entire justice system. Local anger is high over the fact that the two shooters will be able to return to a normal life without so much as a criminal record, since juvenile offenses are not counted as criminal. Community members are universally incredulous that they would be allowed to own firearms once they are released because they do not have felony records. The general frustration with the legal system combined with a widespread view that justice was not served in this case has probably been responsible for the death threats made against Johnson and Golden, which continued even after they were transported to the Department of Youth Services facility at

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Alexander, Arkansas, a remote area far from Jonesboro. Because of these threats, special tarps had to be placed around the exercise yard of the high security unit where the boys are currently incarcerated and part of a nearby woods has been cleared to improve visibility and prevent snipers from accessing the area. Given the abbreviated nature of the confinement, many in the Jonesboro and Westside communities are concerned about what will happen when Johnson and Golden are released, whether they will return to the area, and whether they will be rehabilitated by their stay in the Department of Youth Services facility. The view was commonly voiced in matter-of-fact tones that their lives will be in danger once they are released, generally followed by the opinion that they should not try to take up residence in the vicinity of Jonesboro. COMMUNITY IMPACT If community anger was high as a result of the shooters’ adjudication sentences, the tension was aggravated further by the media siege that followed the shooting. A total of 70 U.S. and foreign news organizations sent more than 200 reporters, photographers, and support personnel to cover the shootings, completely overwhelming this small city.8 Out-of-town reporters arrived at the school within an hour and a half of the first report of the shootings. By the following morning, 50 satellite trucks and camera crews occupied the school grounds. The sheer size of the media combined with the aggressive conduct of some of its members aggravated the trauma of a community already reeling. Although residents generally praised the Jonesboro Sun newspaper and KAIT, the local television station, for their coverage and sensitivity, national and international media were criticized for excessive badgering. The evening of the shooting, school officials invited counselors from throughout the community into the school gymnasium to meet with students, parents, and others who needed counseling. Visitors had to be escorted by police and other volunteers past the dozens of crews who thrust cameras in the faces of grieving children and families. Reporters in search of a story were even known to push some of these escorts out of the way to get at a victim. Some media representatives were worse than others—including one crew that put its cameras up to a kitchen window to film a victim’s family around the breakfast table and a news producer who posed as a student’s relative to gain access to one of the wounded teachers in her hospital room. The families of the shooters, who were bewildered and in shock, were the subject of relentless media attention and were unable to shield their younger children from invasive reporters and cameras. Residents were particularly upset by the license reporters

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence took to interview children without their parents present. The media presence lasted for several months, making daily life and the healing process extremely difficult for those affected by the shooting. Consequences for the School Security and Services Westside Middle School has changed considerably in response to the shooting. Most distressing for its staff and students, they have had to come to terms with the notoriety and negative connotations of the school’s name. Immediately after the shooting, the school became a target for violence and threats from strangers coming out of nowhere. A bomb threat three days after the shooting forced the evacuation of the gymnasium, and there have been additional threats against the school since. News of the shooting has attracted various oddball characters to the school—for example, a clown angered because the school denied him permission to perform for the students showed up anyway and was found performing magic tricks in the school cafeteria. A man with a car full of newspaper clippings about different school shootings around the country turned up at Westside as well. The presence of these strangers wandering onto campus caused additional security concerns for the administration. Even several years after the shooting, some parents and students continue to feel that the school is a target of violence because of the shooting. In the days immediately after the shooting, security was the administration’s main concern. Sheriff’s deputies were brought onto the school grounds to make the children feel safer. Afterward, a wooden-slat fence was built around the school grounds. Although this was supposed to make students feel more secure, law enforcement personnel and teachers noted that the fence actually provides a much better hiding place for a shooter and would make it easy for someone to push a gun between the slats without being seen. The school adopted a much harsher stance on disciplinary problems and threats. While Westside had always had a “zero tolerance” policy that applied to kids bringing weapons to school or other gross violations of the rules, after the shooting the policy was extended to cover threats that would previously have been ignored, such as those said in the heat of an argument. Some at the school described the policy as “common sense zero tolerance,” which still allowed some flexibility for administrators to judge the severity of incidents. But students and staff alike agreed that the climate of Westside is much changed and that transgressions are dealt with more harshly than was the case before the shooting.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence After the shooting, Westside, as well as many of the other schools in the Jonesboro area, brought in school resource officers (SROs). These are trained law enforcement officials who spend most, if not all, of their time at the school. Their main objectives are safety and security, through education and open lines of communication with students. Students were thought to be more comfortable confiding in an adult who does not have the same authoritative relationship with them as their teachers. One function of an SRO is therefore to get to know students and establish trust so that students will come to them if they hear of threats or know of students who are in trouble. Students at Westside have confided in the SRO about other students who have brought drugs, knives, and other small weapons into the school. SROs are also on hand for particularly difficult disciplinary meetings with parents, when they refuse to accept that their child has done anything wrong and become angered at the school. Although there was initially resistance to having an officer with a weapon on the campus, most teachers and administrators with whom we spoke, as well as many parents, thought that having an SRO at the school was an important part of maintaining school security. Westside has also added adult monitors to its school buses since the shooting, in an effort to keep order over the chaotic environment which was said to be the site of much of Johnson and Golden’s planning. Other reports attest to the frequent bullying and teasing that occurs on the school buses, and students say the monitors have helped, although the teasing certainly has not disappeared. The community response to the school’s increased attention to security and monitoring has generally been positive. However, one unintended consequence of this increased surveillance and harsh punishment for infractions has been to drive some of the violence out of the school. Knowing that they will be dealt with severely for fighting on school grounds, students have informally arranged meeting places for fights off location, where school officials have no jurisdiction. A nearby gas station and a local field serve as the meeting grounds for these old-style show-downs when someone is challenged to a fight. A minority has also voiced concern that the presence of a law enforcement official on the school grounds results in more students ending up in the criminal justice system. The SRO can report to the sheriff any rule violation that involves criminal activity, including weapon or drug possession and even fighting in the hallway. Juvenile court officials say that they process more students from schools with an SRO than without one. This criticism of the SROs is relatively rare, but there do seem to be mixed feelings toward the more extensive crackdown on student behavior that comes with these improved security initiatives, particularly zero tolerance. Many people recognize that such a policy is necessary, but there is

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence also a large majority who think that it can be carried too far and greater disciplinary leeway needs to be allowed. Westside has also increased the attention paid to troubled or isolated children in the school. Along with several other schools in the area, Westside has been the beneficiary of a Federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students Grant, which has provided additional social workers and full-time counselors for the school. One counselor and one social worker cover the elementary and high schools, while another counselor and social worker cover the middle school. Counselors are available to meet with students who are referred to them for behavioral problems or therapy by teachers or administrators, and they meet with some students on an ongoing basis. The social workers make home visits to parents, help provide them with services or information if they are unable to come into the school, and teach students character education, like building social skills, anger management, and coping with bullying. Dealing with the Trauma Needless to say, the shooting was the most traumatizing experience ever suffered by the Westside community. From the very beginning, they have had to contend with shock, grief, frustration, lack of privacy, and for the families of Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, shame, remorse, and the sense that they had been judged in the court of public opinion as parental failures. There is no normalcy to be found in the aftermath of such a difficult experience, and yet somehow people have to keep working and children have to go to school. For the teachers and administrators at Westside, the highest priority initially was to tend to the children’s needs. The evening of the shooting, as counselors met and talked with parents, children, and teachers in the gymnasium, an open meeting of about 75–100 people was held in the school cafeteria to discuss a plan for what type of counseling should be offered next. The decision was made to invite members of the National Organization of Victim Assistance (NOVA) into the community to help with the counseling and provide guidance in what people can expect in dealing with the emotional fallout of an event like this. The following day, classes were canceled for students, but teachers were asked to come in. Teachers were divided up into small groups to talk about their experiences and be debriefed on the kinds of behaviors they could expect from their students. The following day, when students returned, counselors and other volunteers were brought into all the classrooms to explain what happened and why they were there, and to open up a conversation about how the students were feeling. Specialists in counseling were also available in the school libraries, and students having serious problems could

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence go and speak with them. These specialists were available throughout the rest of the week, and counselors were on call to go into the classrooms as needed. Counseling was also offered to teachers, police, and staff who felt they needed it. In a tragedy such as this, community members repeatedly said, everyone is a victim. It therefore became quite difficult to recognize everyone who was in need of assistance, and to provide for those needs given the demands of the situation. The emergency medical personnel that responded to the scene, the cafeteria workers who brought towels for the injured, and the students and teachers who were not in the line of fire but lost a friend or a teacher were all victims in this tragedy as well and needed support. Like their students, many teachers were also deeply affected by the shooting, but some felt ill prepared to deal with their own suffering because so much emphasis was put on preparing them to deal with their students’ reactions. Most teachers we spoke with felt that it was too soon to come back to the school the day after the shooting and be expected to cope with a debriefing. Although they did discuss some of their experiences that day, and limited counseling was offered to them through victims’ assistance, they felt in retrospect that this had not been enough to meet their emotional needs after this experience. Many teachers spent so much effort making sure that their students were coping that they pushed their own emotions aside. Teachers, staff, and professional counselors all said that many teachers and administrators were only recently beginning to experience problems as they started to deal with their own grief now, some three years after the shooting. Some teachers are still in therapy, while others claim they would be if only they were able to afford it since not all insurance plans cover it. Teachers and administrators have also suffered from a wide range of emotional and physical health problems since the shooting, including post-traumatic stress disorder, problems sleeping, facial ticks, significant weight loss or gain, and stress-induced epilepsy. Some staff also attribute divorces or problems in their marriages to their emotional states as a result of the shooting. While there has been no formal monitoring or evaluation of the emotional states of the cohort of students who were in the middle school at the time of the shooting, some counselors and school staff believed that these students are suffering problems to a greater extent than other cohorts. Teachers feared that some of these students’ may feel guilty or may still have nightmares, and they have found behavioral and academic problems in their students that they believed are related to the shooting. Some students were still scared and were reminded of the shooting whenever they heard a fire alarm or other loud noise, like a locker door slamming. Some students were still in counseling three years later, while others did

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence not receive any therapy and were never given a chance to talk about their feelings because their parents wanted them to put the shooting behind them. Others feared that these students might be experiencing behavioral problems as a result of the inordinate attention they received after the shooting. Students who witnessed the shooting were asked to be on national television, were sent gifts from around the world, were taken on trips, and were provided with other activities. Some counselors and parents feared that these activities may have not only kept them from really dealing with their feelings, but that the experience of being treated as a celebrity because of their terrible experience may have given them a sense of entitlement. Some of these students, one parent claimed, use the shooting as a crutch to get what they want. For its part, the school is striving to put the shooting behind them. As a result, there is a widely held perception that the school does not want to talk about the shooting and is not supportive of those who are still having trouble as a result of it. Teachers who have difficulties performing their jobs due to depression or post-traumatic stress disorder felt they were not supported by the school, but rather were being told that they should be over it. Students who were still affected by the shooting after several years were also told—by teachers as well as other students—that it was time for them to move on. Yet some of those who were most affected felt that they have not had the open discussion that would allow them to move on. From the school’s perspective, it was difficult to encourage any formal discussion because people were at such different stages of the healing process. Some were done healing and didn’t want to relive the memories, while others still needed to. The school may not be able to cultivate an atmosphere of open discussion, but for those still learning to cope with their trauma, the school’s support was extremely important. They sought an acknowledgment that it was alright for them still to be traumatized. When those who have moved on acted as if there was something wrong with those who have not, it deepened the divisions among these groups. CONSEQUENCES FOR THE COMMUNITY When the subject of the Westside shooting is raised in the Jonesboro area three years after the fact, it is clear that it still brings up hard feelings and emotions. The community is angry that there was never a sense of closure because Johnson and Golden were given indeterminate sentences, which are seen as too short even at their maximum length. There was also no sense of closure when the Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction Act was passed, because it did not provide them with the solutions they had

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence sought—to enable prosecutors to try more juveniles as adults. The community is still troubled that there seems to be no answer to why the shooting happened, but it has come to a level of stasis in recognizing that they may never know for sure. But by and large, the Westside shooting is no longer widely discussed. People who are less removed from the events say that it comes up less and less in conversation, and most people want to move on and stop talking about it. People are embarrassed that it is the shooting that put Westside on the national map and would prefer to put it behind them. There is not even much discussion about Mitchell and Andrew getting out. Although there were formal memorials every year, March 24, 2001, was the first year when there was none. Most people just do not want to talk about it any more. Even the civil suits, which have kept the event alive in some other communities, are infrequently discussed in Jonesboro, and have not brought a “second life” to the shooting. Civil suits were brought by the victims’ families against the shooters for wrongful death, against their parents for not controlling their children or being aware that a situation like this could happen, against Andrew Golden’s grandfather for failing to adequately secure his guns from the known risk of burglary and use by a burglar, and against the gun manufacturers for failing to take available precautions to ensure gun safety—namely for failing to install trigger locks.9 Reactions to the civil suits are mixed. In this region where guns and hunting are widespread and popular, there are many who oppose the suits against the gun manufacturers and claim they were not responsible for what the boys did. Some people support the suits out of sympathy and respect for the victims, but this view is generally in the minority. Attitudes toward the suits against the parents are also mixed, as are personal views about the responsibility of parents when their children do wrong. Many feel the parents should be held responsible, but others are sympathetic and can empathize as parents themselves that it is not always possible to control one’s children. By and large, however, the civil suits are ignored and community members avoid discussing them, much like the shooting in general. Yet the attitude that the shooting should be put behind them makes life more difficult for some people in the community. A family life minister and counselor in Jonesboro compares the shooting to an earthquake, with many concentric circles of impact. Community members who were closest to the epicenter of the event—the victims’ families, those close to them, and people present during the incident—are those who are most deeply hurt and whose healing process will take the longest. Those who are farther removed from the epicenter heal more quickly and want to put the incident behind them faster. Not recognizing the differential rates of

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence healing that people in the community go through, each side thinks the other is wrong. Those closer to the center feel that others are repressing their feelings and will never get through their trauma if they do not talk about it. Those on the periphery think those in the center are dwelling on the past and need to stop. Some feel that the community has become closer and more cohesive in the aftermath of the shooting. There were many acts of generosity and caring as neighbors banded together to help one another. One victim’s family did not have furniture in their house trailer, and a local business furnished their home for free. A local restaurant sent food to the families and counselors who were meeting at the school on the night of the shooting. The local branch of the United Way established a fund for the victims and collected half a million dollars from around the world. Some rifts within the community were also resolved. There had been a ministerial alliance—a consortium of different churches’ leaders who would meet regularly to discuss issues of common concern. In the previous 10 or 15 years, it had divided over whether or not the churches should get involved in the political issue of the county’s being wet or dry. After the shooting, the two ministerial alliances decided to put their differences aside and work together, uniting to form the Jonesboro Ministerial Alliance. Some community leaders do say that they feel this cohesion may only be skin deep. The issues that formed the ministerial alliance have not yet been resolved, and the generosity that arises in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy may fall apart and turn sour later on. Yet many in Jonesboro try to focus on more positive interpretations. Several Westside students noted that their class is now much closer and that bullying and cliques are less of a concern because of their shared experiences of the shooting. CONCLUSION No single cause accounts for the behavior of Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden. The cumulative impact of the forces that span the individual, the family, the school and society are all involved. Both boys were troubled. Mitchell had a very difficult and stormy relationship with his father and a history of sexual abuse, both as a victim and in turn as an abuser. He had trouble controlling his temper and flew off the handle over slights—being teased by peers or being dumped by a girlfriend. These incidents became a channel for a deeper anger. Indeed, it is possible that the abuse Mitchell suffered as a child intensified normal adolescent male concern over masculinity that was subsequently reinforced by a real failure with a girl. As we have not seen the psychiatric reports, we do not know whether this possibility has been examined in any therapeutic setting.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Andrew had a reputation in his neighborhood as a menace and was reported to have been cruel to animals; he appeared to many in the community to be spoiled by his family, and some speculated that a lack of discipline at home may have led him to think he could get away with anything. Andrew may also have been teased at school. However, nothing in the disciplinary histories of either child suggested to school officials that these boys were particularly troubled. There is also no evidence that either boy had formed close or long-lasting relationships with adults outside their families who might have helped them deal with their problems, but they were clearly well loved by members of their own households. As a team, Andrew and Mitchell were able to access a veritable arsenal of weapons. Some of those weapons were left unsecured in Andrew’s home, and the others used in the attack were secured only by a cable in Andrew’s grandfather’s locked home. None of the weapons used were equipped with trigger locks. Not only did the boys have access to firearms, but Andrew had the experience and facility with rifles and hunting that allowed them to plan and execute the attack with a degree of proficiency that surprised even the local police. Finally, while it is not clear what role the media played in this tragedy, many felt that it was a factor. Both Andrew and Mitchell were known to play violent shooting video games with friends, although Mitchell’s family did not have such games at home. The extent and the explicit content of their media viewing habits are not known, but a friend said that Mitchell watched and talked about gory movies, and teachers and other adults who knew Andrew said that he watched and mimicked television programs such as South Park and Beavis and Butthead. While there is no evidence that either Andrew or Mitchell got the idea of a school shooting from previous media coverage of the Pearl or Paducah incidents, a few people close to the boys say that they may have been influenced by the fame and attention, though negative, that such an attack would bring. Yet it must be said that millions of American teenagers watch the same films and TV programs, so it is problematic to assign their viewing undue weight. While residents in the Westside and Jonesboro communities are still unable to explain why this tragedy happened, they are generally quick to tell us, “If it could happen at Westside, it could happen anywhere.” Many urged that school districts, communities, and indeed the nation simultaneously work to prevent and prepare for school shootings. Like a powerful earthquake, the impact of the Westside school shooting was felt far and wide. Few were unaffected by the images of the young boys who were responsible for such a heinous crime. While most people have moved on, those closest to the epicenter are still affected in powerful ways, and their lives will never be the same.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Katherine Newman is the principal investigator on this case study. We wish to thank Martin West, Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University, for his help in analyzing the theoretical perspectives on lethal school violence we relied on and Margot Minardi, Ph.D. candidate in history, for her assistance as well. NOTES 1   Bono is the largest of the three with a population just over 1,000 residents. Cash and Egypt count 280 and 112 residents, respectively. 2   We make occasional reference in this report to “girlfriends” or “going out,” but it should be noted that these relationships among very young teens are not equivalent to their later, high school variant. Particularly in a rural area like the Westside school district, prior to legal driving age, boys and girls tend not to spend unsupervised time together. Hence to be someone’s girlfriend is perhaps to spend time on the telephone or a few idle moments together in a school corridor. Birthday parties, generally supervised by adults, might be another time for this kind of socializing. But there is no evidence of anything more sustained than this and to “be dumped” under these circumstances is merely to see the end of a fairly sketchy relationship. Nonetheless, the social and psychological consequences of rocky interpersonal relations loom large in the minds of preteens and should not be minimized as a result. There was clearly an element of failure in this for Mitchell and possibly for Andrew Golden as well. 3   As is characteristic of rural communities with school districts that are large, the bus ride to school is extremely long, often upward of 1.5 hours for the children who lived farthest from the school. 4   Andrew was apprehended with the following weapons on his person: a universal .30 caliber carbine, a .38 special 2-shot, FIE 380, a .357 caliber revolver, a pocket knife, and over 100 shells. Mitchell was apprehended with the following weapons on his person: a 30.06 caliber rifle, two .38 caliber pistols, a 2-shot derringer, a .38 caliber semiautomatic, two pocket knives, and over 100 shells. At the scene where the shots were fired were also recovered a .44 magnum rifle and 22 spent casings. 5   The possibility of a third shooter was apparently investigated by the police and found to have no merit, but some of those who were in the line of fire still believe that a third shooter, situated on a hill near the elementary school nearby, was involved and eluded capture. Some community members also speculated that a third person, perhaps someone older, had helped the boys plan the event or had discussed it with them. This issue apparently was not part of the investigation. 6   So, too, of course, do millions of other American teenagers. 7   Andrew’s lawyer appealed the state supreme court’s ruling on the insanity argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court declined to hear the case. 8   Jonesboro: Were the Media Fair? The Freedom Forum. 9   The civil suits against the gun manufacturer and against Golden’s grandfather have been dismissed. The court agreed that the parties could not have predicted the intervening proximate cause of the burglary and use of the guns by the boys. The suit against the Goldens was settled out of court and a settlement was paid by their homeowners’ insurance. The suit against Johnson’s parents is still outstanding, as is the suit against the two shooters.