The current debate about school security and guns prompted by the Sandy Hook slaughter has occasioned a 15-year anniversary article about the shootings at the Westside school in Arkansas. It's by David Peisner for BuzzFeed.
Today, the shooting is a historical footnote, and Jonesboro is just another name on a depressingly long list of places that seem cursed to be remembered — in some cases, barely — for the schoolyard carnage they played host to: Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, Littleton, Red Lake, Nickel Mines, Newtown. The details of each of these towns' tragedies are uniquely horrible, but with a decade and a half of distance, the story of what happened to this place and to these people — the students and faculty who lived through it, the families of those who didn't, the first responders, the shooters themselves — feels at times like an inspiration, and at others, like a grim cautionary tale.
But the residents of this community never signed up to be an inspiration or a cautionary tale. For almost everyone I spoke to over the course of a week in and around Jonesboro, it's the defining event of their lives, yet not something they talk about with strangers, or even with one another. But once they were convinced to open up, most seemed eager or relieved to share, accepting that their stories were not theirs alone but part of a larger story that goes far beyond northeast Arkansas, and that is still being written.
The extensive article is crammed with personal tales of difficult family passages, mental health problems, gun politics and more, including interviews with wounded and accounts of relationships with family of the shooters, including Monte Johnson, brother of shooter Mitchell Johnson, who went to the Westside school a year later.
Monte, who still lives in Jonesboro, declined to be interviewed, but did write in a Facebook message to me, "The biggest factor I want to get out to the public is not to push away, blame or point fingers at the family of the killers but to embrace them, accept them in society. I graduated from Westside High School. It was one difficult task, I assure you. There was a lot of aggression, anger [and] hatred for me and my family."
One of the shooters, Johnson, is in prison. Andrew Golden has mostly stayed off-radar, except when he applied for a concealed weapon permit under a different name. He's believed to still live in Northeast Arkansas.
The whys remain out of reach.
There's an account, too, of a play about the event staged in February in Memphis as a benefit for Sandy Hook, written by one of the children at the school the day of the shooting