Deadly middle school shooting rampage shocks Arkansas town

by Trennis Henderson , posted Wednesday, March 25, 1998 (20 years ago)

JONESBORO, Ark. (BP)--In a school shooting rampage that has become eerily familiar, four students and one teacher were killed March 24 in Jonesboro, Ark. The victims died from gunshot wounds following a midday attack at Westside Middle School.

The two suspects in the shootings reportedly are 11- and 13-year-old cousins who attend the school. The two boys immediately were apprehended by police officers and were scheduled to appear before a juvenile court judge Wednesday morning, March 25. The murders follow other fatal shootings in recent months at schools in Kentucky and Mississippi.

The victims have been identified as Natalie Brooks and Brittany Varner, both age 11; Paige Herring and Stephanie Johnson, both age 12; and teacher Shannon Wright, 32. Nine other students and one other teacher were wounded in the attack, including several who remain hospitalized.

Gov. Mike Huckabee offered "collective sympathy to every one of the victims, their families, their friends, but perhaps most significantly to all of those children who will for the rest of their lives have the indelible images imbedded into their psyches ... on the tragedy they witnessed today."

Urging prayer for the victims and their families, Huckabee emphasized "the activities of a few young people are not the activities of all young people."

Curt Hodge, a member of Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro, was the first journalist to arrive on the scene. "When I got there, it was close to pandemonium. What else would you expect?" said Hodge, a reporter for the Jonesboro Sun.

When he first heard the shootings had taken place at Westside Middle School, "I said that's not possible," he remarked. "Most people consider Jonesboro the center of the Bible Belt and you would think that wouldn't happen here."

Charlotte Seats, a sixth-grade Sunday school teacher at Nettleton Baptist Church, said several children who attend the Jonesboro congregation were among the students who witnessed the attack.

Seventh-grader Crystal Barnes, a member of Nettleton church, was one of the shooting victims initially listed in critical condition at St. Bernards Regional Medical Center. Seats said one of the attending physicians called the church Wednesday morning to report that Barnes' condition "was looking better."

"We had several children who were traumatized but not physically hurt," Seats said. "They were just open targets. We appreciate everyone's prayers and concern. It's going to be a healing process.

"I can't imagine the trauma on these children," she added. "It's really hard to believe and hasn't started to sink in yet." Seats said prayer vigils were scheduled Wednesday night at Nettleton church and other area congregations.

Bruce Tippit, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, was among area ministers who rushed to the hospital to offer counseling assistance.

Tippit, who is trained in hospital crisis management, noted "one of the most chaotic things that happened was there were two students who were dead who had not been identified. It got really tough when we had to ask people who didn't know the status of their children for pictures to identify them."

Reflecting on the carnage and chaos, Tippit insisted, "This shouldn't happen to children."

Recalling "the hospital halls were full last night," Hodge said the tragedy has produced numerous ministry opportunities for local congregations.

"This is an opportunity in the whole community," he pointed out. "More people will look inside themselves and ask questions and hopefully will look toward the Lord more. I hope that will be one thing to come out of it."

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