SENSE OF SECURITY: How the Westside tragedy changed America’s response to school safety

Since 1970, data found that 589 people have died because of school shootings in the U.S.
Published: Aug. 13, 2022 at 7:23 PM CDT
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - School shootings are nothing new. The first documented shooting in America dates back to 1764, when a student opened fire at a Greencastle, Pennsylvania, school, killing nine students.

In 2022, school shootings reached the highest number in 20 years. Thirty-one people have been killed on school campuses in 2022 alone.

Every time a shooting happens, the emotion of such a tragedy hits home here in Northeast Arkansas, having experienced a tragedy of its own on March 24, 1998, when two students killed four fellow classmates and a teacher at Westside Middle School.

“Never ever, ever expected such a tragedy to happen,” said Dr. Karen Curtner, superintendent of the Nettleton School District. She was the principal of Westside Middle School at the time of the shooting.

“It was, at that time, it was almost the unthinkable,” she said. “It was nothing no one ever thought about.”

“It is hard to talk about the incident,” said Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott. “That day is still very vivid in my mind.”

Elliott was one of the first officers on the scene and helped process the crime. That day changed his and Curtner’s lives.

“You don’t have to think long about what happened, and it comes back to you,” Curtner said. “I do not know if it will ever go away.”

Just after noon that fateful day, the fire alarm went off. Two students had pulled the alarm and set up in a wooded area. As dozens exited the building, the two students began shooting their classmates.

“I was floored. I couldn’t imagine in my mind that two young boys that age could have done something,” Curtner said.

The day of the Westside tragedy changed a community and a nation. It was only the second mass school shooting in America to receive major national television coverage.

The tragedy opened the eyes of the nation.

“We were very unprepared, really, because we never thought we would have a crisis like that,” Curtner said.

Reflecting on that day from her office as Nettleton’s superintendent, Dr. Curtner remembers how unprepared she was. There was no place for an active shooter. After Westside, and other shootings like the Columbine High School just a year later, Curtner said preparedness changed.

“I think we are more prepared today when I look at all the changes that have been made, not just in Nettleton School District but around the state and around the country,” she said.

Following the Westside school shooting, safety had to be of concern, and there had to be plans. For Curtner, those plans involve students, staff, parents, and law enforcement and an open line of communication.

“We now have radios that not only connect to us at the schools but our SROs that connect directly to JPD and to the sheriff’s office,” she said.

“We sit down with schools a couple of times a year to discuss things going on and share information back and forth and concerns, and that has been received well,” Chief Elliott said, describing how his department now works with districts across the city.

Those conversations did not happen before the Westside Middle School shooting, but immediately after. Curtner made sure armed officers were inside her buildings. It would be the start of the School Resource Officer movement.

“There is no way, in my opinion, to handle a person with a firearm unless you’ve got a firearm yourself,” the long-time educator said.

Districts now plan for the worst with crisis plans. In Curtner’s district, those plans are not printed to avoid falling into the hands of the wrong person, but they are practiced and they’re revised after any incident in the country.

“We want any help that we can get, whether it is to prepare our teachers to be prepared for a crisis situation, what to do, how to do,” she said. “When it comes to safety, it is whatever it takes. Safety is first and foremost in our district.”

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