Survivor Recalls The Forgotten Deadly School Shooting Before Columbine
When Mary Hollis Inboden watched her middle school classmates fall to the playground floor in a hail of bullets twenty years ago, the vernacular of school shootings didn’t exist.
The 12-year-old from Jonesboro, Arkansas, had never heard the term ‘active shooter’ or ‘mass shooting’ when she woke up to go to school on the morning of March 24, 1998.
On that fateful Tuesday, two of her classmates at Westside Middle School would open fire, injuring ten innocent people, and killing five more, including her best friend Paige Herring, who was also just 12.
LeAnn Rimes’ How Do I Live (Without You)? played at Paige’s funeral later that week. Mary Hollis and all the other Jonesboro girls who survived the shooting wore white ribbons in their hair.
The young survivors were ‘flooded with love from the outside world’.
Mary Hollis found comfort in the cards, books, flowers, stuffed animals, and ‘in their acknowledgement, [she] felt like we’d never let anything like what happened at my school happen again, anywhere’.
Just thirteen months later, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School and murdered one teacher and 12 students, injuring 21 more innocent people.
Today, 20 April, is the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine massacre. It’s a tragedy most consider to be the first contemporary school shooting, which caused an unprecedented outpouring of grief and moral panic born of fear.
Columbine sparked a narrative which would become all too familiar over the next 19 years:
[ooyala player_id=”5df2ff5a35d24237905833bd032cd5d8″ auto=”true” width=”640″ height=”356″ pcode=”twa2oyOnjiGwU8-cvdRQbrVTiR2l” code=”RjNTBkZTE6JcTS4AEJCrYMieKAWrtVRO”]
But as news outlets across the world released security camera footage of Harris and Klebold stalking the halls of their Colorado school, Mary Hollis, barely a teenager, was still in the throes of recovery – if recovery from an atrocity like this is even possible.
Although her little school was flooded with counsellors in the immediate aftermath, and her ‘classrooms became group therapy sessions’, Mary Hollis isn’t so sure.
She recalls experiencing ‘palpable anxiety’ and faking illness to avoid going to school, and for the rest of the academic year, the rural young girl from the quiet Craighead County was unable to make it through a full day of classes every Tuesday.
The month of March was scary for me. That’s when the bad thing happened, so in my child mind, that’s when all the bad things would happen.
Although she’s no longer afraid of Tuesdays or March at 32 years old, the month is still difficult and ‘shaky’, she adds, comparing her feeling ‘to what an animal must feel when they know a storm is coming’.
After Columbine, Mary Hollis describes regressing further. With each subsequent school shooting it gets harder.
Mary Hollis told UNILAD:
There is a palpable dread that boils up at the beginning of the month. Then the 24th comes just around the corner and that’s the day when I open up the closet and all the pain pours out.
This most recent anniversary, the 20th since the shooting on my playground, was the hardest one so far because in 20 years the anomaly that happened at my school has turned into a national epidemic.
Now when I open up the closet door on my anniversary, all the shootings that have happened since are stored there with mine and I have to mourn them too.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been two mass shootings in the vicinity of a school in America every year since the archive’s formation in 2013, with the exception of 2015, when there were three, all occurring in October.
The term ‘mass shooting’ meant nothing to Mary Hollis when her school was targeted:
The first time I heard the phrase was on the news when reporters were describing the devastation at Columbine.
In just over a year from the shooting at my school it felt like we had grown almost complacent, comfortable enough to give this horror a name.
The number of times we’ve heard the phrase since is startling. The shooting at Westside, by definition was also a ‘mass shooting’ but at the time it was covered as a singular tragic event.
Indeed, the common vernacular was nowhere to be seen on the front cover of national papers:
Now, it comes to classify any shooting in one location resulting in four or more fatalities, excluding the perpetrator.
Mary Hollis expressed frustration and disgust because the mass shooting at Westside is ‘so often forgotten’ because it preceded Columbine by 13 months and the loss of life was ‘so “little” by comparison, much as it disgusts me to say that…’
After all, this kind of loss of life cannot be quantified by statistics, but through human anguish caused by unexplained evil.
Pre-Columbine School Shooting Survivor Reveals Extent Of Her Injuries
Here’s what happened just after lunchtime on March 24 1998:
One of my classmates walked into our rural middle school, wearing full camouflage and pulled the fire alarm closest to my 6th grade reading class. We heard the alarm and my classmates and I quickly exited the building and headed toward the school playground.
Once outside, loud popping sounds started and then dust started whirling. I thought it was fireworks or construction happening on the new addition to the middle school. Then, just a few feet in front of me, Natalie Brooks fell to the ground. I looked at her. She was badly hurt, but I still didn’t know from what.
Then other bodies fell all around the pathway from the middle school doors we’d exited and up toward the front of the school in between the playground and the gym. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew enough to be scared of it.
Mary Hollis continued:
I yelled “run” and a small group of us split from our huddle and ran across what I now know to be the central hail of bullets. I ran past Paige who was laying face down in the grass and yelled for her to get up, clapping my hands at her to get her attention. But I didn’t stop.
I ran towards the gym and looked behind me for Paige, but she wasn’t there. Instead I saw my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Thetford, propped up, between two other faculty members, barely able to walk. Her stomach was exposed and I saw that she was bleeding.
Once I got into the gym lobby two of classmates were complaining that they were hot. Their sides were burning, like a bee-sting. Each of them lifted their shirts exposing holes in their flesh on the back and side. The words, they just came out: ‘You’ve been shot.’
She escaped without injury, except those ‘hidden in my heart’, she said:
I left them and ran past a teacher, clearly in shock, standing in the doorway of the darkened gym office, I crawled under the coach’s desk and called 911. I told the lady on the end of the line that something bad had happened at Westside Middle School – I didn’t know the address – and to come quick.
And then I called my mom. I was joined by a few girls from my class. One of the smaller ones, sat on my lap under the coach’s desk and we huddled there, trying to stay quiet until a sheriff entered the building, and his booming voice said they had the people in custody.
People. There were two. I didn’t know until the evening news that night that Paige had been shot and killed on the playground by two of our classmates, Mitchell [Scott Johnson, pictured left] and Andrew [Douglas Golden, pictured right].
Johnson, 13, and Golden, 11, murdered Natalie Brooks, 11, Stephanie Johnson, 12, Britthney Ryen Varner, 11, and their teacher Shannon Wright, 32, teacher, as well as Paige.
Mary Hollis went to five funerals in one week in the aftermath of Jonesboro and had been entered involuntarily into an exclusive lifelong so-called ‘Survivors’ Club’ for which she’d never requested membership.
Now 32, and a successful actor living in Los Angeles, Mary Hollis is still bearing the emotional scars of witnessing the deadliest massacre at an American middle school.
Mary Hollis told UNILAD she has thought of the shooting every day for the past 20 years:
I think people outside of the trauma of a shooting have this gift – this lucky gift – of only thinking about these events when the next one occurs. For my classmates and I though, that’s definitely not the case.
It often feels like the outside world still thinks I’m 12, like I’m forever one of those kids on that playground. We’re adults walking through life, and it’s always right there.
You can see the same burden in the eyes of the young student activists who suffered on Valentine’s Day this year when Nikolas Cruz killed seventeen people in the second-greatest loss of life from a shooting at a US public school, after the 2012 massacre of 20 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Dr Valerie Sinason, who told UNILAD how trauma on such a large, community-wide scale can leave young people suffering with PTSD for years to come.
The child psychotherapist explains ‘feeling heard’ by counsellors, supportive friends and family members can alleviate victims’ symptoms of PTSD, but added this is a type of incomparable childhood trauma.
Dr Sinason added:
Nevertheless, a mass shooting is a different order of trauma. From Columbine onwards this is a particular American tragedy with post traumatic stress disorder being the largest result.
While some with huge support networks and lucky personalities escape relatively unscathed, PTSD symptoms can last for years. However the community trauma adds to the pain of the child victims.
Also those closest to young people killed have the highest symptoms.
This is echoed in Mary Hollis’ continued pain:
Every time another shooting occurs, I become glued to the television. Looking for answers to the newest deadly event, and maybe to the one I survived.
I also withdraw. I cry. I am catatonic. It feels like the shooting at my school all over again.
However, Mary Hollis uses the collective ‘we’ to tell UNILAD she thinks society is ‘absolutely desensitized [sic] to the phrase mass shooting’.
She reasons the unfathomable, saying:
That’s what happens when you hear a thing over and over again. And we have. There have been so many shootings in 20 years.
[Since Columbine] the shootings have just continued to escalate. In the most recent at Parkland, 17 lives were lost. It feels like we’re keeping score instead of trying to stop it.
We all know America has a problem with mass shootings. Just one every year – every decade, every century – would constitute a problem in dire need of fixing. But Mary Hollis finds herself in disbelief of the division this ‘common sense’ logic has caused.
Mary Hollis explained how she lives with ‘debilitating’ guilt, adding:
Aside from innocence, the shooting robbed my friends and I of ever knowing if our lives are the way they are, if we’re the people we are, because of the shooting. I always wanted to be an actress, but my friend Paige had the talent.
Did I pursue this profession because she couldn’t or would I have always pursued it? I’ll never know.
I get up every day and I find myself working really hard to earn my place in the world. There’s a pressure inside me to fulfill the dreams of two people, myself and my friend Paige who was killed.
The guilt that I feel for surviving can overwhelm and debilitate me if I don’t keep moving. It’s a lot of work living for two people.
She told UNILAD the memory of Paige is with her every day:
I think about Paige, by best friend who was lost that day, and wonder if she’d be proud of me, of who I’ve become and what I’ve done; I’m the same age now as the teacher we lost. I wonder why I’m here and she isn’t.
Paige’s birthday is on the 11th [of March] and that’s the day I think about all the things I haven’t accomplished for myself, but more profoundly for her. Like I’m accounting for the years I’ve been given to see whether I’ve proven worthy of them.
In some ways her birthday is mine. A day to not celebrate, but to reflect.
And reflect is all Mary Hollis can do. But is it enough, she questions:
People say time heals all wounds, but I don’t think that’s true. For me, each year, each anniversary has been more difficult to get through than the last because, as an adult, I’m able to better define how horrific the shooting truly was.
And yet, it feels like I’m even further away from understanding it. I guess that’s what I’m searching for and why I have to think about it every day. I want answers I’ll never have.
I don’t know if healing is actually a true and full possibility, but maybe I could find out if other shootings didn’t continue to happen.
Mary Hollis told UNILAD she’s been ‘wanting things to change, holding onto a memory’ and hoping no more students would have to go through what she went through, along with the rest of America, all the while avoiding gun control debates because it’s just too painful.
She observes the familiar rituals, commenting:
America has become a nation of mourners; we are good at memorializing [sic] these events. We are good at lighting the candle, sending thoughts and prayers, and hoping it never happens again.
The March For Our Lives movement understands that passiveness will not solve the problem of school violence and mass shootings; more lives will be lost.
[ooyala player_id=”5df2ff5a35d24237905833bd032cd5d8″ auto=”true” width=”1280″ height=”720″ pcode=”twa2oyOnjiGwU8-cvdRQbrVTiR2l” code=”s2dDNpZTE6qrYhu-KnF42lp7895PZtff”]
The Parkland students’ March For Our Lives took place, coincidentally or not, on the 20th anniversary of the Westside Middle School shooting.
For so many it represented a young and powerful rallying cry against the mechanisms of power, the purse strings of which are pulled by the National Rifle Association, which prevent the necessary restrictions on firearm ownership.
But for Mary Hollis, the march became a reason to look to the future on a day when she’d become so accustomed to examining the past. For that, and the countless reason tallied with each and every life needlessly lost, Mary Hollis gives them her full support.
So Mary Hollis marched alongside them for a ‘deep need to remind people’ of Westside, she concluded:
The organizers [sic] insisted that the shooting was for every victim of this violence, and I wanted to make sure the shooting at Westside was remembered. It was important to me.
They took to the streets, and on a day when I usually find it hard to even get out of bed, I went to Washington and marched with them.
While it was hard for Paige’s memory to be mixed in with so many on that day, I understand that in order to see actionable change she has to be added to a list of the many lost in this horrific epidemic.
Mary Hollis has ‘spent so long afraid and angry that adults weren’t going to save my life’, but now she’s an adult herself, she’s lending her voice to the debate, all the while knowing she doesn’t have all the answers, even as a survivor.
She nows hopes steps will be taken, not to fix symptoms of the problem with clear backpacks and armed teachers, but ‘to rid the world of one hyper-violent gun, the AR-15’, and call for universal background checks, closing the gun-show loophole that has never had to adhere to any of the laws currently in place.
There were 52 people killed on the day of the March For Our Lives in firearms incidents across America. Right now, we need to keep on marching in order for this list to stop growing.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year.
Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
If you have a story to tell, contact UNILAD via [email protected]