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.
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