Below is the uncorrected machine-read text of this chapter, intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text of each book. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.
101 On March 24, 1998, in the third and deadliest in a series of recentschool 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, par- ents 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 Johnsonâs mother, was particularly helpful. Some key individuals were unwilling to be interviewed, particularly members of Andrew Goldenâs 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 researchersâ job is best served by reporting them all. THE SETTING Residents describe the Westside community as the most unlikely set- ting 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, 4 A Deadly Partnership: Lethal Violence in an Arkansas Middle School Cybelle Fox, Wendy D. Roth, and Katherine Newman
102 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE whose residents number 55,000 but whose diverse manufacturing, ser- vice, and retail sectors attract a trade area population of nearly a half million from the surrounding areas, including southern Missouri. Lo- cated 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 Crowleyâs Ridge, many of the surrounding communities are on the flat farmlandâproducing cotton, rice, and soybeansâthat 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 crisesâparticu- larly in the area hospitalsâwhich was to prove very valuable when the school shootings took place. The natural disasters also brought the com- munity 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 1997â1998 school year when the shooting occurred, there were approximately 250 students in Westsideâs 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 schoolâs location, de- mographic composition, and lack of any significant history of violence made most people in the community think the school impervious to serious vio- lence. 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 West- side Middle School on the day of the shooting. He had only recently
103A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP 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. Mitchellâs father (and Gretchen Woodardâs 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 evi- dence 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 fatherâs 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 consider- able amount of time in the care of their grandmother. While Mitchell was staying at his grandmotherâs 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, how- ever; 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. Mitchellâs 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 didnât 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 Mitchellâs 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 wasnât that much to be involved in. Gretchen came to Mitchellâs parent-teacher conferences faithfully and was supportive of the school in its disciplinary decisions. Mitchell was interested in the Bible and at- tended Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro. He loved music, performed
104 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 foot- ball, 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 âmodel childâ 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 âten times overâ 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 âwannabe.â 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. Mitchellâs relationship with his father remained stormy after the boy moved to Bono, and he was apprehensive of his trips back to Minnesota
105A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP over Christmas and the summer. These visits did not go well; his father would threaten to send him home because he âmisbehavedâ and in the summer of 1996, he did send Mitchell home after only two weeks because he âwas real hostile.â Although Mitchellâs mother and his stepfather were viewed as car- ing, 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, re- marking that he could stay over at friendsâ 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 Mitchellâs 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 Min- nesota. 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 fatherâs 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 âhopeless,â 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 didnât 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,
106 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 Andrewâs teachers gradu- ated from Westside with Andrewâs father, Dennis. Dennis and Andrewâs mother, Pat, worked as postmasters in a nearby town and were seen by people in the community as hard-working people with good jobs. An- drew was their only child together. Pat had two other children from a previous marriage and had had a tubal ligation before she married Den- nis. 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 âthe center of their world.â 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 hunt- ing. 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 shoot- ing at the local range and won awards for his marksmanship. Hunting is a very common activity for boys at Westside, but the Golden familyâs 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 affili- ate 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 out- wardly 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 parentsâ eyes, An- drew could do no wrong. A neighbor reported how Andrew would âcurse like a sailorâ at a very young ageâperhaps 4 or 5 years oldâand 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
107A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP throw her hands up and say she couldnât 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 corpo- ral punishment is still legal, but when Andrewâs grandmother discovered her grandson had been paddled, she reportedly became very angry, yelled at the teacher in front of other students, and later convinced Andrewâs parents to place him on the âno paddle list.â Andrewâs 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. Andrewâs 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 teach- ers 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, how- ever. 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. Goldenâs 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. Andrewâs behavior around the neighbor- hood contributed to his reputation as âmean-spirited.â 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 Andrewâs neighborhood reputation before the shooting.
108 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 ac- quaintances who met on the long bus ride to school. 3 The bus ride pro- vided 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 otherâs 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 Andrewâs 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 âdatedâ 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 report- edly dated Andrew and broke up with him before the shooting; Ashley Betts, age 12; Tristan McGowan, age 13, who was Andrewâs cousin; Chris- tina 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
109A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP their vacations and getting back into the swing of things when Andrew Golden, clad in camouflage clothing, entered the middle school at ap- proximately 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 An- drew had done, but everyone filed out of the building through their as- signed 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 sug- gested that their initial discussions about the shooting were casual or just âtalking big,â 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 step- father, who had actually already left for work, would give him a ride. When Mitchellâs 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 Goldenâs home. Andrewâs 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 Andrewâs house, but the majority of his fatherâs 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 Andrewâs grandparentsâ house. They broke into the house with a crowbar and found an arsenal of weaponsâ a wall completely lined with riflesâsecured only by a cable running across them. From the grandparentsâ 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 ex- ecuted 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 appar- ently 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
110 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. Bernardâs 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 shoot- ing 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, run- ning toward the van. Another speculation is that the boys stopped be- cause there was no one left standing in the line of fire. The whole shoot- ing 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. Po- lice 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 weap- ons; Mitchell dropped his gun, but Andrew hesitated. They repeated the
111A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP 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 plan- ning 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 âsomething big was going to happen tomorrow.â And students heard Mitchell say: âTomorrow you will find out if you live or die,â and that he âhad a lot of killing to do.â Earlier that year, at least one student saw Andrew get up on a table in the cafeteria and say âYou are all going to die.â The day before the shooting, Mitchell told a friend âYou wonât be seeing me for awhile because Iâm going to be running from the cops.â The friend did not know what Mitchell was talking about and ignored the comment. These statements and threats were seen as com- mon 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 didnât 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 over- heard 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 schoolâs 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 state- ments. Andrew claimed that he was just kidding, but his parents were notified of the incident. In the school counselorâs affidavit, she claimed that she asked Andrewâs mother if Andrew had access to guns. His mother said he didnâtâthat the guns in the house were locked up and that she would discuss the matter with her husband and that they would
112 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE take care of it. No further actions on the part of the school were appar- ently taken in response to this incident. In addition, at least one other student claimed that she had reported the threats to an adult at the school before the shooting and that the adult had done nothing. The school has consistently denied that any adult was ever told about a threat by Mitchell or Andrew against other students. It is not clear whether the boys intentionally targeted specific indi- viduals. In general, based on the ballistics evidence, people involved in law enforcement and the legal proceedings deny that individuals were targeted. Mitchell has claimed that no one was targeted and that he intended only to aim over his classmates and teachersâ heads to scare them. A few bullet holes near the top of the gym wall may support this claim, but at some point, Mitchell lowered his rifle and hit at least four individuals. In addition, according to some students, the boys had a hit list. At least one classmate claimed to have seen a written list that in- cluded some teachers and students that Mitchell was angry at, as well as all of his ex-girlfriends, although no list was found during the course of the investigation. Most people connected with the shooting, including investigators, believe that at least a verbal list existed. It has been suggested that since the boys were approximately 93 yardsâalmost a football field awayâfrom the individuals they were shooting at, they were too far, given the pandemonium, to have seen whom they were shooting. But Mitchellâs rifle had a scope, and Andrew was known as a skilled marksman. We also know that Mitchell hit Candace Porter, a girl with whom he had recently gone out and who had rejected him. Also injured was Jennifer Jacobs, a girl Andrew had re- cently gone out with and who had also rejected him, although ballistics reports could not confirm who shot her. Some teachers and students believe that some of the others shot may have been girls Andrew or Mitchell wanted to date but who werenât interested in them. In addition, Andrew hit three students who lived on his or his grandfatherâs street, where he was locally known as a bit of a terror. Moreover, a teacher who was not hit believes the shooting was intended for her, and she claimed to have received confirmation from officials close to the investigation. Some people in the community believe that girls were specifically targeted, since all but one of those hit were female. The shooting took place during fifth period, when most of the boys were in gym class in a separate building and many of the girls were in choir in the sixth grade wing and were supposed to exit the building by the west entrance. But investigators believe that the boys intended to arrive at the school earlier and the mishaps along the way delayed their arrival, therefore they prob- ably did not intentionally plan to target girls. These assurances from the law enforcement community that no individuals were targeted have not
113A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP been easy for teachers and other individuals who knew the relationships among the children to accept. To them, the patterns and the reasons these particular individuals became targets is all too clear. It is also not clear whether Andrew or Mitchell was the instigator in the shooting, and community membersâincluding those who knew the boys wellâare fairly evenly divided in their assessments. Those who are close to the investigation, and many in the community, generally believe that Andrew was the instigator because his psychological evaluation seemed to indicate he was the more troubled of the two and he fired more shots and hit more victims. Others who also knew the boys well are equally convinced that Mitchell was the instigator. He was more of a leader; he was older, smarter, and was controlling. While he could be very charming, he had an explosive temper and, by some accounts, an abusive personality. Mitchell was described as manipulative and hence was believed to have coaxed Andrew into helping him because Andrew had the meansâaccess to the guns. Mitchell also had the harder life; he came from a broken home and had suffered abuse in the past. Some who knew the boys felt that their association with each other basically re- volved around the planning of the shooting. They felt that each needed the other to carry it out. However, the investigation did not uncover any concrete evidence that sheds light on the interpersonal dynamics of the two. Some residents also had trouble reconciling the fact that an insider like Andrew, whose family had been in the community for generations, could conceive of such a heinous act, so they find it more plausible to blame it on Mitchell, the relative newcomer. In retrospect, we know that Mitchell seemed to have precipitating events immediately preceding the shooting which could explain his anger at that time; we know little about Andrew, however. THE CAUSES Virtually no one in the community seemed to be able to explain why this tragedy happened. When the boys were apprehended by police a few minutes after the shooting, one of the officerâs asked âWhy?â as much to himself, he claimed, as to the other officer. Mitchell reportedly replied, âAnger, I guess.â He then nodded his head toward Andrew and said âHe asked me if I would help him do it and I said âyes.ââ The other officer remembers Mitchell stating that âAndrew was mad at a teacher. . . . He was tired of their crap.â Since that day, when the boys have been asked the same question, they appeared not to be able to give an answer. Some believe that there will never be an answer to this question; others think that the cause is, at the very least, multifaceted.
114 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE In the days and weeks after the shooting, the media put forth many theories in search of an explanation. Some of the most frequently cited reasons include mental illness, a Southern gun culture or culture of vio- lence, a problematic family setting, bullying, and exposure to media violence or media coverage of previous shootings. Mental Illness The easiest explanation would be to believe that these boys were simply mentally ill, that there was something terribly wrong with them that could explain why they did this. We have no evidence to support such an explanation. Psychological evaluations were performed on both Andrew and Mitchell, but we were not allowed access to them. Accord- ing to some who have read the evaluations, there was no conclusive evidence of mental illness, although Andrew was generally thought to be the âdarkerâ of the two. During the criminal proceedings that fol- lowed the shooting, Andrewâs lawyer attempted to argue that Andrew was legally insane and incompetent at the time of the shooting. The courts found that juveniles are not entitled to an insanity defense, how- ever, and therefore the full argument was never presented in or evalu- ated by the court. In addition, there is no evidence that either boy was on any form of medication. Family Problems Problems within the familyâincluding divorce, domestic or sexual abuse, frequent relocations, fragile family relationships, as well as lack of awareness or involvement in childrenâs livesâare another explanation for school shootings that has been put forth in the popular media. Dimin- ishing adult and parental authority over children is another variant on this theme and was frequently mentioned by community residents as a growing problem. Parents are increasingly losing control of their kids, most often because they work long hours and have little time to spend with them. Moreover, many people in the community feel that parents have relinquished authority for disciplining their children to the school, while the school in turn believes that, increasingly, parents are not sup- portive of the schoolâs disciplinary decisions. Problems within the family may offer one of the more persuasive interpretations for the causes of the shooting in this case, although here, as elsewhere, the evidence is mixed. Clearly, there were serious problems in Mitchell Johnsonâs family history. His parents were divorced, he had made frequent moves, and he was a relative newcomer to a community that is still thought of as a place where people spend their whole lives.
115A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP His troubled relationship with his father was a source of much anxiety for him, and the thought of possibly having to live with his father made him feel hopeless. He had suffered repeated sexual abuse, and while it is not uncommon for children to fear telling anyone about such abuse, Mitchellâs fears were aggravated by his worries about his fatherâs temper. Mitchell also seemed to have inherited that temper and was known to overreact and to displace his anger. For example, his teachers said that he felt slighted or put upon by even light teasing or jabs. They also said that he took dating quite seriously, and his friends believed that he would overreact when girls dumped him. Mitchell also seemed to have prob- lems with particular teachers and was known to hold a personal grudge against a teacher who disciplined him. His response to anger, frustration, and abuse was to lash out, frequently not at those responsible for the abuse but at innocent bystanders. When Mitchell was being picked on or bullied, he bullied others, and his fondling of a 2-year-old may have been a response to the sexual abuse he suffered himself. Various people close to Mitchell have suggested that the shooting was a displacement of the anger and frustration he felt toward some family members and his abuse. Still, Mitchellâs life with his mother and stepfather in Bono was more stable than he had ever known before. His mother and stepfather were seen as caring and concerned parents and, by all accounts, Mitchell got along with both of them. His mother was at home and had made efforts to get Mitchell help for some of his problems, at least in connection to the fondling incident. Although Mitchell may have had a lot of unstructured time when his parents were not aware of his activities, it was not necessar- ily more so than other children. It is not clear whether Mitchell received enough attention and supervision from his family, but family members were certainly available for him and involved at least in his disciplinary problems at school. In contrast to Mitchellâs more clearly troubled family history, An- drew Goldenâs family background seemed to be remarkably stable. His family was close, and they were well-respected long-time residents of the community. In general, his father and his grandmother were involved in his life at school and wanted him to keep out of trouble; when teachers raised minor issuesâlike Andrewâs making other children feel jealous in kindergarten by selecting who could and could not play with a bag of toy guns he had brought to schoolâhis parents were willing to oblige the teachers and have him keep the toy guns at home. Yet his family was overindulgent and generally gave him his way. In the middle school, Andrewâs parents pulled him out of a class when he complained to them that a teacher had spoken harshly to him about not acting up in class and distracting other students. Teachers and neighbors suspected that An- drew was not disciplined for misbehaving. His family may have even
116 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE encouraged some of his behavior. Andrew was also a latchkey kid and therefore had unsupervised and unstructured time alone at home. It was only in his own neighborhood that he was known as a menace. We must emphasize that our understanding of Andrewâs character is based entirely on interviews with individuals outside his family. The Goldens were not accessible to us and hence we lack the kind of insight that might have been developed had we been able to interview his par- ents or grandparents. Bullying According to a number of people close to the boysâincluding class- mates, teachers, and law enforcement officialsâbullying, or at the very least teasing, may have been a factor in the shootings. One of Mitchellâs teachers knew before the shooting that Mitchell was being picked on but felt that he was overreacting to his classmatesâ teasingâthat he was being too sensitive. Mitchell liked to brag and when classmates tried to cut him down to size, he would become angry. Concerned about being bullied, Mitchell may have chosen some friends who he felt would protect him, and the âtoughâ image he tried to project, including his frequent claims to gang affiliation, may have been a protective strategy. At the same time, Mitchell was seen as likely to bully others. He was by no means an outcast, and the anger he expressed at students in the school did not seem targeted at people who might have bullied him. Andrew was a slight boy, leading some people to think it is possible that he was bullied. Students said that Andrew had friends, and while he wasnât in any clique, he was not considered a loner. While several students did not have the perception that Andrew or Mitchell were picked on a lot, some classmates did tell adults in the community that they were bullied or teased. However, it does not appear that they were singled out for excessive abuse. Bullying is considered by many to be a significant problem at Westside, especially on the bus and in the hallways, but it is not clear whether it is any worse than at any other middle school. Both students and teachers agree though that much of the bullying that occurs happens out of the sight of adults at the school. While bullying or teasing may have been part of the problem, no one, not even the boys, according to those who have spoken with them, is willing to say âbullying was the reason.â The boys have said that they felt put upon, but bullying alone does not explain their rampage. Gun Culture/Culture of Violence Most of the people in the community understandably resent any rep- resentation of Southerners as gun-toting, violent people. Most boys learn
117A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP to hunt, they admit, but people are generally responsible and furthermore âit is not guns, but people, that kill.â Some also argue that guns are prevalent in all rural communities, North and South. The distinction therefore should be made between rural and urban, not between the North and the South. We found no conclusive evidence to support or discount either claim, but it is clear that Mitchell and Andrew were able to access an arsenal of weapons for this crime. While most of the Goldensâ weapons were se- curedâeither in a safe or by a cableâMitchell and Andrew were able to access more than enough firepower for the shooting. While it is impos- sible to know the impact that trigger locks might have had, none of the weapons was equipped with them. After this tragedy, civil suits were mounted by the victimsâ families against the gun manufacturers, and some of them lobbied for trigger locks. Most of the youth we spoke with thought it would be pretty easy to get a gun if they wanted one. Andrewâs proficiency with handling weapons has already been noted; according to media accounts, he was given a rifle for his sixth birthday and had other weapons of his own as well. Andrew was fascinated, possibly obsessed with guns; some teachers say it was his toy of choice as a young child, and the year of the shooting, he drew a picture of two rifles when asked to draw something that symbolized his family for his social studies class; he even did a skit about guns for his English class. Mitchell was not as skilled with guns, but when officers apprehended him after the shooting, Mitchell was carrying his hunter education card in his coat pocket. Mitchell had access to a gun for hunting purposes, but because his stepfather had been convicted of a felony and was not al- lowed to have weapons in his home, the gun was stored with a neighbor and was not used for the shooting. Exposure to Media Violence or Media Coverage Many residents of the community where the shooting occurred be- lieve that the mediaâs glamorization of violence in general and of school shootings in particular fuel these types of incidents, if not this specific tragedy. Children are influenced by what they see and hear and become desensitized to excessive media violence. In their view, it is no longer a question of simply monitoring what your own children watch; they now fear what the neighborâs child is exposed to because they know all too well that other peopleâs problems can quickly become their own. What role media violence played in this particular shooting is un- clear. According to friends, Mitchell played violent video games, in- cluding a shooting game, at friendsâ houses but did not have access to them at home; his family was too poor. His mother said that he owned
118 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE only two rap CDs, TuPac Shakurâs All Eyez On Me, and Bone Thugz n Harmonyâs E 1999. A Westside Middle School teacher testified before the Senate Commerce Committee, in a hearing about parental warning labels on albums, that âMitchell brought this music to school with him, listened to it on the bus, tried listening to it in class, sang lyrics over and over at school, and played a cassette in the bathroom about âcoming to school and killing all the kids.ââ According to his mother, Mitchell was not obsessed with violent music or television. One friend mentioned that he often talked about blood and gore and that he liked âgoryâ movies. 6 There is no direct evidence to suggest that Mitchellâs obsession with gangs came from the media, but such an explanation is possible given his relatively isolated life. He may also have learned about gangs from other children in the area where he lived, as gangs are a problem in the Jonesboro area, or from an older family member who attended an area school, which had a gang problem. We can only speculate as to the reasons Mitchell displayed such interest in gangs; it may have simply been a matter of looking cool, or it may have been a protective measure to stave off any would-be bullies. Whatever the reason, he was compelled to pretend he was part of one and talked about murder and violence as necessary to obtain entry to the gang community. It appears then that in his mind, violence could be rewarded and respectedâa view that many attribute to the messages available in the mass media. We know considerably less about Andrewâs viewing habits, except that he was a latchkey kid, whose frequent time alone at home may have left open the possibility for exposure to violent music or television. Andrewâs grandfather has told the media that Andrew did play video games with guns. According to adults who knew Andrew, he was enamored with Beavis and Butthead and South Park (as are thousands of other children), and he used to play the clown and mimic the characters in those television shows. At the time of the shooting, two other school shootings had occurred in the South in the previous six months: one in Pearl, Mississippi, and one in West Paducah, Kentucky. It is unclear whether the boys were aware of either shooting, but people close to the boys do not believe it was a pri- mary motivation. When the police searched their homes and the van, they found nothing to indicate it was a copycat crime and nothing the boys have reportedly said indicates they were directly influenced by the two recent shootings. Whether or not the shooting was a copycat crime, several community members, including one who knew both boys person- ally, believed that they were influenced by the fame they knew would result from the shooting and felt that the boys relished the attention, even though it was so negative.
119A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP Child-Adult Relationships In addition to the explanations that have been put forth in the na- tional media for the rash of school shootings, members of the Jonesboro and Westside communities have some of their own. One common theme they expressed is the lack of communication be- tween adults and children. People perceived a widespread disconnect between children and adults, so that children have few meaningful adult figures to connect to. Especially at the middle school age, kids at Westside were more likely to confide in their peers than in any adults. Part of this process is natural; at that ageâ11, 12, or 13âchildren normally start to become more independent and develop stronger relationships with their peers. Yet some of the disconnect may be the result of more structural factors. Some teachers feel themselves less able to connect with kids because of the growing number of other demands on themâincluding disciplinary functions, dealing with âsqueaky wheelâ students who de- mand much of their attention, paperwork, and the growing pressure to get their students to perform well on standardized tests. Students may have felt that meaningful adult contact diminished as they entered the middle school. Elementary school students who were used to forming a close relationship with a single teacher found themselves largely on their own in the middle school, where homeroom met only a few times a year to perform administrative functions and was not geared toward building the same kinds of close relationships. Many teachers argued that they had received little or inadequate train- ing in identifying and coping with troubled children. While there was a full-time school counselor and a part-time licensed therapist assigned to the middle school, children generally need to be referred to them for assistance by teachers or the principal, unless the children or their parents seek the help themselves. With classes of 25 or 30 students that teachers see for only one period a day, only the more extreme casesâchildren who disrupt the class or show obvious signsâtend to get services. Some stu- dents are involved with churches and may have meaningful contact with adults through the church; only a few local churches had full-time youth pastors or ministers, but several had part-time youth leaders. Even so, some church leaders felt that even church services can lead children to be segregated from adults and may not contribute to the connection between parents and children. There is no strong evidence to suggest that either Mitchell Johnson or Andrew Golden had particularly close relationships with adults outside their families. There were a couple of teachers that Mitchell liked, but he had disciplinary problems even with them when his temper got him into trouble. Even one of his favorite teachers had to assign him to in-school
120 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE suspension. He did talk to a teacher about being picked on and would sometimes ask her for help with a bullying incident. Mitchell also was part of a youth group at his church, but he had only been attending for approximately six weeks prior to the shooting. Teachers generally de- scribed Andrew as a middle-of-the-road kid who didnât cause a lot of problems, and none seemed particularly close with him. Some other students in the same age group as the two boys also said it was rare for middle school students to communicate with teachers or other adults in the school about any problems they were having; they had not done so themselves. No single reason explains what led Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden to open fire on their teachers and classmates. Many factors influ- enced them, and while none of these alone led to the shooting, the cumu- lative impact of these forces contributed to the events of March 24, 1998. The boysâ family histories and experiences at home seem to have contrib- uted to a state of mind in which other influences, such as teasing or bullying at school and disciplinary or social problems with girls, served as an outlet for their anger, and the media and their access to guns may have contributed to the idea and the means. The lack of meaningful adult contact and authority may have failed to prevent their anger from explod- ing, and feeling ignored or unheard by adults may lead a child to grasp for the fame that a negative event like this can easily produce. It is likely that neither boy on his own would have carried out this plan; the two together were an unfortunate and deadly combination. CRIMINAL ADJUDICATION Within minutes of the shooting, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden were apprehended and taken to the Craighead County Jailâs juvenile de- tention facility. Each boy was charged with 5 counts of capital murder and 10 counts of first degree battery. However, under Arkansas law, defendants under the age of 14 had to be tried as juveniles, and the most serious charge that could be lodged against them was delinquency, which carries a maximum punishment of detention in a Department of Youth Services juvenile center until the age of 18. When they turn 18, Mitchell and Andrew must be moved to a special facility for 18- to 21-year-olds. Since the purpose of juvenile detention is rehabilitative rather than puni- tive, the boys could only be sentenced to an indeterminate period, up to age 21, in the center, until such a time as they are deemed rehabilitated. At the adjudication hearing, Johnson entered a guilty plea and read a statement apologizing for his actions: âI really thought that no one would actually be hurt. I thought we would just shoot over everyoneâs head. When the shooting started, we were not shooting at anybody or any
121A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP group of people in particular.â Golden pleaded not guilty and did not issue any statement. Andrewâs 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. Andrewâs 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 judgeâs 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 com- petency, 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; mul- tiple criteria have to be met before it can be invoked. Given the availabil- ity of appeals, it could take a very long time before any of these cases would be settled. This outcome provided little satisfaction for the fami- lies of Westside victims and for many produced a sense of disillusion- ment 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 juve- nile offenses are not counted as criminal. Community members are uni- versally 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
122 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 Jones- boro 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 Depart- ment 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 shootersâ 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 newspa- per and KAIT, the local television station, for their coverage and sensitiv- ity, national and international media were criticized for excessive badger- ing. The evening of the shooting, school officials invited counselors from throughout the community into the school gymnasium to meet with stu- dents, 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 othersâincluding one crew that put its cameras up to a kitchen window to film a victimâs family around the breakfast table and a news producer who posed as a studentâs 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
123A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP took to interview children without their parents present. The media pres- ence 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 schoolâs 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 schoolâfor 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 ad- ministration. 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 adminis- trationâs main concern. Sheriffâs 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 âzero toleranceâ policy that applied to kids bringing weapons to school or other gross violations of the rules, after the shooting the policy was ex- tended 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 âcommon sense zero tolerance,â which still allowed some flex- ibility 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.
124 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 Goldenâs 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 schoolâs increased attention to secu- rity and monitoring has generally been positive. However, one unin- tended 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 enforce- ment 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 pos- session 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 toler- ance. Many people recognize that such a policy is necessary, but there is
125A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP 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 Stu- dents 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 man- agement, 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 work- ing and children have to go to school. For the teachers and administrators at Westside, the highest priority initially was to tend to the childrenâs needs. The evening of the shooting, as counselors met and talked with parents, children, and teachers in the gymnasium, an open meeting of about 75â100 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 expe- riences 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 avail- able in the school libraries, and students having serious problems could
126 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, ev- eryone is a victim. It therefore became quite difficult to recognize every- one 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 be- cause so much emphasis was put on preparing them to deal with their studentsâ 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 experi- ences that day, and limited counseling was offered to them through vic- timsâ 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 mar- riages to their emotional states as a result of the shooting. While there has been no formal monitoring or evaluation of the emo- tional 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 studentsâ may feel guilty or may still have nightmares, and they have found behavioral and academic prob- lems 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
127A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP 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 par- ents 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 shoot- ing 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 toldâby teachers as well as other studentsâthat 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 schoolâs 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 didnât 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 schoolâs 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
128 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE soughtâto enable prosecutors to try more juveniles as adults. The com- munity 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 dis- cussed. 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 âsecond lifeâ to the shooting. Civil suits were brought by the victimsâ 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 Goldenâs 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 safetyânamely 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 per- sonal 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 al- ways possible to control oneâs 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 minis- ter 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 eventâthe victimsâ families, those close to them, and people present during the incidentâare 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
129A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP 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 victimâs 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 shoot- ing. 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 allianceâa consortium of different churchesâ leaders who would meet regu- larly 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 countyâs being wet or dry. After the shooting, the two ministerial alliances decided to put their differences aside and work to- gether, 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 indi- vidual, 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 slightsâbeing teased by peers or being dumped by a girlfriend. These incidents became a channel for a deeper anger. Indeed, it is pos- sible that the abuse Mitchell suffered as a child intensified normal adoles- cent 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.
130 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 com- munity 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, noth- ing 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 out- side 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 arse- nal of weapons. Some of those weapons were left unsecured in Andrewâs home, and the others used in the attack were secured only by a cable in Andrewâs grandfatherâs locked home. None of the weapons used were equipped with trigger locks. Not only did the boys have access to fire- arms, but Andrew had the experience and facility with rifles and hunting that allowed them to plan and execute the attack with a degree of profi- ciency that surprised even the local police. Finally, while it is not clear what role the media played in this trag- edy, many felt that it was a factor. Both Andrew and Mitchell were known to play violent shooting video games with friends, although Mitchellâs 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 at- tack 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, âIf it could happen at Westside, it could happen anywhere.â Many urged that school districts, communities, and indeed the nation simulta- neously work to prevent and prepare for school shootings. Like a powerful earthquake, the impact of the Westside school shoot- ing 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.
131A DEADLY PARTNERSHIP 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 1Bono is the largest of the three with a population just over 1,000 residents. Cash and Egypt count 280 and 112 residents, respectively. 2We make occasional reference in this report to âgirlfriendsâ or âgoing out,â 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 someoneâs 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 sus- tained than this and to âbe dumpedâ 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 mini- mized as a result. There was clearly an element of failure in this for Mitchell and possibly for Andrew Golden as well. 3As 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. 4Andrew 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. 5The 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 appar- ently was not part of the investigation. 6So, too, of course, do millions of other American teenagers. 7Andrewâs lawyer appealed the state supreme courtâs ruling on the insanity argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court declined to hear the case. 8Jonesboro: Were the Media Fair? The Freedom Forum. 9The civil suits against the gun manufacturer and against Goldenâs 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 homeownersâ insur- ance. The suit against Johnsonâs parents is still outstanding, as is the suit against the two shooters.