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School violence can happen anywhere

On March 24, 1998, a mild spring day, I was off for two days and preparing to mow my yard in Jonesboro for the first time that year. Before I could start the mower I receive an urgent page to call my newsroom immediately.

I was told by the sports editor of multiple shooting victims at Westside Middle School west of Jonesboro in an unincorporated area of Craighead County. He could not find the news editor on duty and decided to call me. I did not return to my yard chores for several days.

I drove west, but encountered a roadblock, with ambulances lined up at the intersection of U.S. 63 and Arkansas 18-91. Turning north, I found a gravel county road and cut across a ridge to a paved road near the school.

It was necessary to use roadside ditches to travel the last half-mile to the campus. The unthinkable had happened at the middle school and parents were rushing to the campus, sometimes leaving their vehicles partially off the narrow shoulder, with doors standing open.

Ambulance crews had to stop and close the doors and several times move vehicles out of the roadway in order to reach the school.

“This can’t be happening here,” one mother kept shouting over and over. On a normal day I would have agreed with her. This was not a normal day for Westside.

After reaching the school I was asked by one paramedic I knew to help carry a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. A young girl, her clothing heavily stained with blood, had been shot, but would survive.

The final toll at Westside was four students and one teacher killed, nine students and one teacher wounded. All were female. The innocent world for many youngsters at Westside ended that day.

Two Westside students, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, had established a killing zone outside the school, and then Golden entered a door and pulled a fire alarm.

As students and teachers filed out, the two opened fire with multiple weapons from their ambush cover. At the time, it was the deadliest massacre at a school in the country, and remains the deadliest at a middle school.

A worker on the roof of the school saw the two flee and directed deputy sheriffs to the van they occupied. They were literally in custody within minutes of the gunfire ending.

Despite their young age, they were each convicted of five counts murder and 10 counts attempted murder on state charges and unlawful firearms possession by federal authorities. They were incarcerated on the state charges until reaching 18 and to 21 on the federal counts.

The latest tragedy plunged Newtown, Conn., into mourning and added the community of 27,000 people to the list of locations where mass shootings in recent years have periodically fanned the national debate over gun control.

I could not help but think of that spring day at Westside Middle School last week upon hearing of Newtown. They had counselors for the teachers, students, police and ambulance personnel at Westside, but not the reporters who saw the dead and wounded. I have nightmares when a mass shooting occurs at a school.

I had difficulty believing a mass school shooting had occurred near my home. It was even more difficult to comprehend the ringleader was an 11-year-old.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.