For the month of January, I’d like to focus on some of the “firsts” in crime. One particularly tragic first is the story of the first mass school shooting in the US.
When most people think of the first school shooting, they usually think of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others, then turned their guns on themselves.
But that wasn’t the first school shooting in America. There have been many shootings at public schools over the years, going back to the 1700s. Most were acts of revenge, committed by one person against another at a school. Others were the result of a fight breaking out amongst armed students. The modern type of school shooting, where a student (or students) comes to the school and targets fellow students and teachers for the express purpose of taking as many lives as possible, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The first mass murder (four or more fatalities) at a public school (not a college), where the shooter arrived with the express purpose of killing many others (as opposed to a fight breaking out or an act of revenge on a specific individual) happened at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, on March 24, 1998.
A year before the Columbine massacre, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, ages 11 and 13, set into motion a plan they had been forming for some time. Johnson stole his father’s van and drove to Golden’s house and picked him up. They then drove to Golden’s grandparents’ house, which they broke into and stole several weapons.
They then drove to their school, where Golden sneaked inside and pulled a fire alarm. The two hid in a nearby wooded area and fired on teachers and students as they exited the building. They killed five people and wounded 10 others.
When police apprehended the boys 10 minutes later, they found they had stocked the stolen van with food, clothing and camping equipment ,as well as 13 fully loaded firearms and 200 rounds of ammo.
Because of their young ages, Golden and Johnson were not able to be tried as adults under Arkansas law. The exact charges can’t even be determined, as juvenile records are ordered sealed — or even destroyed. A decade after the shooting, both young men walked free. They are the only mass school shooters who aren’t dead or in prison.
Because their records were sealed, both have legally obtained firearms since their release.
Since being released, Golden changed his name and has remained off law enforcement radar. Johnson, however, has been arrested twice, once for possessing a firearm in the presence of narcotics and once for credit-card theft and possession of marijuana. He was sentenced to prison for 12 years, but was released on parole in 2015.
At the time, the Westside Middle School massacre shocked the nation…yet only a year later, the Columbine massacre eclipsed it, setting off a very dark and deadly trend that unfortunately continues to this day.