Chat transcript: A look back at Arkansas school shootings
May 11, 1999
(CNN) -- The following is an edited transcript of a Friday, April 30, 1999 chat with Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen about her recent visit to Jonesboro, Arkansas.
As Littleton moves into a second week of mourning those lost in the Columbine High School shootings, the grief is echoed in Arkansas. People who survived a similar trauma in Jonesboro are recalling their own experiences and the long-term emotional recovery efforts that have followed.
Lynette Thetford -- not by her own choosing -- has become an expert on trauma and recovery. She's a teacher in Jonesboro and was shot on March 24, 1998, when two students, then aged 11 and 13, went on a rampage. Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson killed four students and one teacher, and they wounded 10 people.
Chat Moderator: Hi, Elizabeth, thanks for joining us today.
Elizabeth Cohen: Welcome to the chat, everyone.
Chat Moderator: Can you tell us about your trip to Jonesboro, and how the people there have coped with last year's school shooting?
Elizabeth Cohen: I was in Jonesboro this week and talked to victims and witnesses and doctors and teachers and police officers, and I was impressed with how people are really trying to do something about violence. Not only are they moving on emotionally in their own lives, but they want to make a difference everywhere.
Chat Participant: What are they saying about Littleton, Ms. Cohen?
Elizabeth Cohen: Littleton was very much on the minds of the people in Jonesboro. It definitely shook them up. The folks in Jonesboro really felt like they were moving on, and then there was the shock of Littleton. I think it made them sad and frustrated, and even more resolved to make sure it didn't happen again. They were very much interested in giving advice to people in Littleton. Lynette Thetford, a teacher who was seriously injured, offered several pieces of advice, including that people in Littleton should get counseling. She resisted it, but did it after doctors suggested it, and she says it's helped a lot.
Chat Participant: Can you compare and/or contrast what you witnessed firsthand in Jonesboro with all of the horrific images we've all witnessed this week out of Littleton?
Elizabeth Cohen: It's hard to compare, because it's a year later, but I definitely felt like in Jonesboro, the images of the violence there were fresh in their minds, and the images were very similar to the ones in Littleton. It was chilling, and so sad, to hear Lynette Thetford talk about the two girls on either side of her in the schoolyard who were shot and killed.
Chat Participant: I wonder if anyone in Jonesboro has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Elizabeth Cohen: PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) comes in all degrees, from feeling scared in general to being hypersensitive to loud noises to having impaired functioning in daily life. The people I met were all functioning fine, but I heard about folks who were having trouble at work, etc., since the shooting, and there were children scared to go to school in Jonesboro after the Littleton shooting.
Chat Participant: Are they planning on some concrete move to help the people of Littleton to move on?
Elizabeth Cohen: As far as I know, there are no concrete plans for people in Jonesboro to help people in Littleton.
Chat Participant: Is it possible to have PTSD if you weren't actually there, at the school? What about parents, or spouses of the teachers?
Elizabeth Cohen: Yes, the latest psychiatric research shows that you can have PTSD even if you weren't at the site of the violence. People have PTSD if they just heard the sirens or knew someone who was at the school. The disease may not be as bad, of course, but it's still there.
Chat Participant: There has been extensive coverage and follow-ups on most of the school shootings and focusing on the students and their family. How are the teachers doing? We don't hear much about them.
Elizabeth Cohen: The teacher I talked to is still suffering emotionally. She runs that day through her mind. When the shooting started in the courtyard, she told teachers to get the kids down on the ground, and now she wonders if she did the right thing, that perhaps she should have told them to run away. So the teachers have the added burden of responsibility for the kids, wondering if they protected them as they should have.
Chat Participant: All of the schools in my town were called to say that something was going to happen today by gangs with guns, and my grandson was physically ill last night.
Elizabeth Cohen: I heard in Jonesboro that the day after Littleton, kids made threats and they suspended a bunch of students, which I understand is happening other places as well, but in Jonesboro it carries an extra sense of horror.
Chat Participant: Has the school in Jonesboro made any physical changes to their facility, as a result of the shootings? Does that courtyard still look like it did a year ago?
Elizabeth Cohen: I don't know about Westside physically, because they are very strict about the media. You can't bring a camera anywhere near there. I went to another school district in Jonesboro.
Chat Participant: What about the health personnel who were involved? How have they coped with hearing the stories from their counterparts in Littleton?
Elizabeth Cohen: I spoke with the head of the ER in the major hospital in Jonesboro, the one the injured kids and teachers were brought to, and he said he thought he was doing fine until Littleton, and now the anger and frustration have resurfaced. I think it renewed his vow to speak out publicly on the issue of teen violence whenever possible.
Chat Participant: Are there any security measures, like what some city schools do, like inspecting bags?
Elizabeth Cohen: All middle and junior highs in Jonesboro now have a police officer, and the same officer every day. He's actually there not only to protect but to get to know the kids so that he can try to pick out the ones who might become violent.
Chat Participant: It appears there is no safe place anymore where there are troubled kids, because they are everywhere now.
Elizabeth Cohen: The interesting thing about this is that the folks who are doing anti-violence programs actually feel like we can do something -- that these programs really make a difference. In Boston, they started programs in the mid-'80s, violence continued to go up, and in 1990 there were 10 juvenile deaths due to guns. But in 1998 there were none ... and people largely credit these programs, which were all-encompassing -- health people were involved, so were police officers, government agencies, etc.
Chat Participant: Hopefully he's not singling out children who are "different."
Elizabeth Cohen: Good point about the "different" kids. I spent the day with one officer, and he didn't seem concerned about kids just because they were different.
Chat Moderator: Did the people of Jonesboro welcome you, and were they willing to discuss the shooting of a year ago with reporters?
Elizabeth Cohen: I made phone calls from Atlanta before I left, and only a few people just said outright that they did not want to talk with me. They felt badgered by the media and did not want to get involved in any way. I totally understood that. That town was really deluged a year ago. But many people want to talk to the media, because they feel it might help someone in Littleton or prevent another shooting.
Chat Participant: I wonder where the families of Jonesboro are now? Are they in acceptance?
Elizabeth Cohen: I didn't speak to any families whose loved ones were killed, but I spoke to two people who were seriously injured and in wheelchairs for a while. They did not seem angry as much as they seemed sad. Above all, people are frustrated that this happened again. They feel frustrated that it's hard to know what to do to prevent these shootings from becoming annual (or even more so) events.
Chat Participant: Have there been any "studies" into whether or not marriages were affected as a result of the shootings?
Elizabeth Cohen: I was surprised to find that no one seems to have studied Jonesboro in its long-term aftermath. I thought for sure a psychiatrist or psychologist would have gone in and done a long-term study, but it appears they have not. I think it would be an interesting project.
Chat Moderator: Did you learn anything from your interviews with the Jonesboro residents that surprised you?
Elizabeth Cohen: I was surprised, and saddened, to hear about the extent of the survivor's guilt. I think it's so horrible that Lynette Thetford, to this day goes through the details of the shooting, wondering if she did the right thing and wondering why she lived when the two girls on either side of her were killed.
Chat Participant: What could she have done differently?
Elizabeth Cohen: I don't think she could have done anything differently, and she's not disabled by her memories, but it seems like she'll always wonder if she did everything she could for those kids. I think it's a natural reaction.
Chat Participant: Does it bother anybody else here that we made such a media event out of Colorado, and yet I remember Scotland? Hardly a comparison.
Elizabeth Cohen: You mean not as much media in Scotland as there was/is in Littleton? That is true. I'm not sure why, but tragedies in the U.S. -- plane crashes, etc. -- usually get more attention.
Chat Participant: It is quite common to have someone accept the guilt for something they had no control over; that's why counseling is so important in those cases. My husband experienced that guilt when his buddies were killed in Vietnam right beside him and he didn't even get a scratch.
Elizabeth Cohen: Yes, I think that comparisons to battle are apt. That schoolyard sounded like a battlefield, as did the school in Littleton.
Chat Moderator: Did psychiatrists or psychologists remain in Jonesboro for long-term treatment/counseling of the victims, students, teachers following the shooting?
Elizabeth Cohen: I imagine that if special counselors were brought in immediately after the Jonesboro shooting that they are no longer there, but it's not a small place; they have lots of counselors there permanently.
Chat Participant: How does this trauma influence the victims' families?
Elizabeth Cohen: I talked to the mom of a girl who was seriously injured and was amazed at the lack of anger from her or her daughter. They really focused on the girl's physical recovery.
Chat Participant: That amazes me, Elizabeth, the lack of anger. I was thinking in the shower this morning that I doubt I would ever forgive anybody who hurt my boys.
Elizabeth Cohen: That amazes me, too. I saw the parents of a girl who was killed in Littleton -- they were on Larry King two nights ago -- and they were remarkably un-angry. I think I would be ballistic, but you never know until something, God forbids, happens to you.
Chat Participant: There seemed to be a lot of anger present at the town hall meeting when one of the shooter's moms spoke.
Elizabeth Cohen: Yes, I talked to Jonesboro folks about the mother of the shooter who appeared at the town meeting. The anger was not only at her, but at the TV show, because they had not been warned she was going to appear, and they felt blindsided. Family members of people who had died were in that room, and it was, I'm sure, hard to see her.
Chat Participant: Do you plan to go to Littleton as well?
Elizabeth Cohen: I do not plan on going to Littleton.
Chat Participant: How difficult was it for you to remain objective in covering Jonesboro?
Elizabeth Cohen: It was definitely very, very sad. It was not an easy trip, but I was so impressed by the people there, and how well they have done.
Chat Participant: What really moved me was the bond that had formed between the teachers.
Elizabeth Cohen: Yes, the bond between the teachers moved me as well. They really had been in battle together, like the bond between soldiers. Lynette Thetford said prayer, counseling and talking to her fellow teachers were the three things that got her through.
Chat Participant: Elizabeth, has anyone attempted a forensic reconstruction of the shooter?
Elizabeth Cohen: I assume you're talking about the shooters in Colorado. I was not there.
Chat Participant: Elizabeth, I was talking about the Jonesboro shooting.
Elizabeth Cohen: I'm not sure what you mean then by forensic reconstruction.
Chat Particpant: Elizabeth, I am assuming that an interview of the shooters would be confounded by rationalizations and evasions. A reconstruction might have avoided that.
Elizabeth Cohen: I myself have wondered about what those boys -- the two killers -- have to say a year later. I didn't report on that ... just on the victims and their recovery.
Chat Participant: It would be interesting to have a follow-up on parents of the dead children in Littleton, especially since their children were left in the school overnight. Did any of the Jonesboro parents discuss this with you?
Elizabeth Cohen: No one in Jonesboro mentioned that in particular -- the part about the bodies having to be in the room overnight -- it sounds horrible.
Chat Participant: Elizabeth, can you help shed some light as to whether or not the school violence so prevalent in the U.S. is a result of your lax gun control laws?
Elizabeth Cohen: I'm not an expert on gun control. However, I have spoken with several doctors, both in and out of Jonesboro, who feel quite strongly that parents need to lock up guns, or use trigger locks, or not have guns at home at all.
Chat Participant: Do the parents there report that they are more "clingy" with their kids, for lack of a better word right now?
Elizabeth Cohen: Yes, parents reported that's a very typical reaction for kids, and renewed fear, when Littleton happened.
Chat Participant: What part do you feel the breakdown of the family starting as far back as the '50s and two working parents plays in the psychology of these "lost" children?
Elizabeth Cohen: Like you, I have heard a lot of discussion about various factors that lead kids to be violent; availability of guns, breakdown of the family. I think it's impossible to sort it all out.
Chat Participant: Elizabeth, as a reporter would it have been possible to interview the shooters? While they might not give you the "truth," what they have to say should be interesting.
Elizabeth Cohen: I would imagine that law enforcement wouldn't let me anywhere near those kids, meaning wouldn't let me near the shooters, who are, of course, in custody.
Chat Moderator: Did the Jonesboro people who were wounded in last year's shooting talk to you about their recovery, and their thoughts? Are they angry?
Elizabeth Cohen: I spoke with a girl who was in a wheelchair for a while because of the shooting and her mother, and I was amazed at how they were focusing on her physical recovery and not focused on how she got hurt in the first place. Of course, this is a year later. She has a scar all up and down her leg. The physical therapists said recovery is quicker if the patient does not focus on the killers, who are to blame for the injuries, but I imagine it's hard not to focus on that.
Chat Moderator: Did the parents of the shooters stay in Jonesboro?
Elizabeth Cohen: Yes, I believe they did.
Chat Moderator: What did the Jonesboro teachers tell you about the attack that happened in their school a year ago?
Elizabeth Cohen: The teacher I spoke with was obviously scarred, emotionally and physically. I don't think she will ever be the same. She says she feels like she has wasted the whole last year getting over this; more emotionally than physically, although both were issues.
Chat Participant: Have there been any changes in the Jonesboro schools in the way of increased psychological services since the shootings? Could you tell us of some of the changes, please?
Elizabeth Cohen: Yes, there have been changes. All middle and senior high schools have a police officer assigned to them, and at the school that I went to, the kids really said they felt comfortable talking to them. He doesn't sit in an office; he is always out among the kids. They also have better mentoring programs for troubled kids and are planning to start an after-school program for high-risk kids. On the day of the Littleton shooting, I heard that counselors were made available at Westside.
Chat Participant: Elizabeth, how has the mentoring program improved?
Elizabeth Cohen: They are just encouraging it more, doing more to link up the at-risk kids with mentors from the community. The day I was at the junior high school, the sheriff, who's a mentor, came to see his mentees.
Chat Participant: Elizabeth, doesn't a mentoring program bypass the family, where problems start? Has anyone thought about a "troubled child parenting program"?
Elizabeth Cohen: Pediatricians and school officials in Jonesboro are now more on the alert for troubled children, and they then refer the family for counseling.
Chat Participant: Will you be returning to Jonesboro again?
Elizabeth Cohen: I would really like to go back to Jonesboro, but hopefully not for the same reason, meaning, hopefully not for another school shooting. But I would love to go back and see how they are doing.
Chat Moderator: What reports do you have planned for the coming month(s)?
Elizabeth Cohen: When the diet drug Orlistat goes on the market, which should be in the next few weeks, I hear, I plan to do a story on the drug.
Chat Moderator: Elizabeth, thanks for joining us today. Come back soon! Visit our chat calendar for a complete list of future events and past chat transcripts.
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