CRAIGHEAD COUNTY, Ark. – Years later, the Westside School District near Jonesboro looks the same, but in many ways it’s much different.
On March 24, 1998, two young shooters, ages 13 and 11, killed four students, Natalie Brooks, Paige Ann Herring, Stephanie Johnson, and Britthney Varner, along with sixth grade teacher Shannon Wright.
Scott Gauntt, the current Westside School District superintendent, walks through the memorial garden. It sits in the same location where tragedy struck two decades prior.
“There is symbolism throughout the garden. The canopy itself is put on 5 pillars, a single solid pillar in the middle, and four pillars around it, symbolizing the teacher and her four students that passed away,” Gauntt said. “Even though it happened 20 years ago, this is still right under the surface, for lack of a better word, still an open wound.”
Crystal Scott remembers that day like it was yesterday. She was in the sixth grade at the time.
“I was in class and the fire alarm went off,” said Scott. “We got together and went out the backdoor and shots rang out,”
She says the next thing she heard is something no child should ever experience.
“I didn’t know exactly what was going on. We thought it was fire crackers at first, that’s what it sounded like, until we saw the classmates on the ground and blood,” Scott said.
Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott was a sergeant at the time. He says when the first call came in he ran to his vehicle and drove immediately to the school.
“I’m running lights and sirens and I come up on a blue minivan that is going as fast as I am and I realize this is a parent,” Elliott said.
When he arrived on the scene, the shots had been fired, but the aftermath was just beginning.
“I see people injured, and I see people covered in blood, and some walking, and several laying on the ground,” Elliott said.
He says they are images he will never forget, “To look out at kids everywhere that’s been hurt, it’s just a big shock. It weights heavy on you, and it weighs heavy on me today.”
Years later, as the police chief, Elliot reflects on that day that changed his life. He says seeing tragic events unravel today still affects him.
“Every time you see one of these shootings unfold on TV since Westside, we had Columbine the year after and it just keeps on going, I just kind of sit down and take a big breath and I relive that,” Elliott said.
“This is not something that goes away, it remains with you, it’s part of our DNA,” Gauntt said.
The place where flowers bloom now, serves as a reminder of lives lost in March.