LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Friday marks 25 years since a group of middle school girls and their teacher were shot and killed by two other classmates at Westside Middle School in Craighead County.
The shooting happened on Tuesday March 24th, 1998, killing sixth-grade teacher Shannon Wright, 11-year-old Natalie Brooks, 12-year-old Paige Ann Herring, 12-year-old Stephanie Johnson and 11-year-old Britthney Varner. Nine other students and another teacher were also injured.
Investigators said 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden were arrested for the shooting and they were sentenced to confinement until they reached 21.
Johnson was later sentenced to 12 years in federal prison in a 2008 conviction, with four years added later for drug and firearms convictions and Golden later died in a traffic accident in 2019.
The family Varner said Britthney was small, but she was also mighty. Her sister, Brandi Varner said she remembers being at the nearby high school the day of the shooting, when at the time she was 13 years old.
“It was just mass hysteria.” Varner said in her class, “Nobody really gave a shooting any kind of thought.”
Varner said an hour later they found out it was a school shooting, but she never expected her sister to be killed.
“I’m sitting here going, ‘she is going to tell me what happened when we got home’ and the reality now was that she wasn’t coming home.”
Varner said she remembers the chaos of trying to go to the hospital with her family as they tried to see if Britthney was still alive. She said when they made it, the doctor told her family Britthney had died.
“He (the doctor) said as soon as we got her here, we put her in surgery but there was really nothing we could do for her, we couldn’t save her.” Varner adds, “My mom broke down right away and I remember feeling like I was being suffocated with this.”
Varner said it took her around 15 years before she started making peace with the death of her sister. She was happy to see that there was a memorial built for those that have lost their life at Westside Middle School.
“I think that it is necessary there, especially moving forward and I think it’s an important story to tell,” Varner stated.
Varner said she dedicated her life to becoming a teacher to young people and a volleyball coach because she said that was a sport that also helped her through grief.
“I wanted to instill this love into girls that obviously will never go through what I went through, but something if they felt like they didn’t have any outlet or they didn’t have anywhere to turn this sport could help them,” Varner said.
Varner said she believes her spirit is always guiding her.
“It’s always nice to know that light still shines even 25 years later,” Varner said.
She stated she doesn’t like that after her sister’s school experienced a school shooting, more kept happening throughout America.
“All I do know is that nothing has changed because it always repeats itself over and over,” Varner stated.
Varner said she now has 4 children of her own and every day she tries to hug them and tell them that she loves them.
She said the message she hopes everyone takes from the tragic day is that, “don’t ever think that it’s not going to happen here because that was exactly us 25 years ago” and to make sure your loved ones know how much you love them.