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Heroic Teacher, 2 Schoolgirls Buried in Arkansas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shannon Wright, who shielded a sixth-grade pupil from gunfire and was fatally wounded as a result, was remembered Saturday as a hero as the final victims of Tuesday’s shooting spree at Westside Middle School were laid to rest.

The 32-year-old teacher, who leaves behind a husband and a 2-year-old son, was memorialized at a jammed church service just five miles from the scene of the bloody schoolyard ambush that claimed the lives of Wright and four young girls and injured 10 others.

Services for 12-year-old Stephanie Johnson and 11-year-old Britthney Varner were also held Saturday, a breezy, sunny day.

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The three were the last of the victims to be buried, as this small rural community struggled to cope with their deaths, which came suddenly and violently in the middle of a school day.

Police say 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden lured their classmates to a school parking lot with a false fire alarm, then wielded stolen weapons and for four minutes rained bullets upon the trapped teachers and students.

The boys have been charged with five counts of murder and 10 counts of first-degree battery and are being held in a nearby juvenile detention center.

Condolences continued to pour in from around the world, stretching the staff at the local post office to the limit. Old Orchard Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio, sent 72 teddy bears to comfort the afflicted school’s children. Cards and letters by the scores came from children and adults in Dunblane, Scotland, where, two years ago, 16 children, ages 5 and 6, and their teacher were gunned down at an elementary school by a former Scout leader.

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Confirming the curious link that occurs when towns are visited with similar horror, West Paducah, Ky.--scene of yet another school shooting--dispatched a team of 100 crisis counselors to assist this community.

About $45,000 has been raised in Jonesboro to aid the families of the victims. The town plans a mass memorial service Tuesday night.

In South Africa, President Clinton urged the nation and mourners in his home state to try to come to terms with last week’s tragic shooting.

He also suggested that the two boys accused in the killings may not have been acting maliciously.

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“We do not understand what drives children, whether in small towns or big cities, to pick up guns and take the lives of others. We may never make sense of the senseless, but we have to try,” Clinton said in his weekly radio address. The former Arkansas governor taped the address in Cape Town as he continued his 12-day African tour.

“We have to understand that young children may not fully appreciate the consequences of actions that are destructive but may be able to be romanticized at a twisted moment,” Clinton said, mentioning each of the shooting victims by name.

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The president, noting that the Jonesboro shootings mark the third time in recent months a U.S. town has been “shaken by the awful specter of students being killed by other young people at schools,” said he has asked Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to organize experts on school violence to study the shootings and determine what steps can be taken to prevent such tragedies.

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The focus in Jonesboro, however, has been on the loss of the schoolchildren and their beloved teacher. During the gunfire, Wright was ushering her charges into the safety of the gymnasium when she turned and saw one of the shooters aiming at Emma Pittman. Wright stepped forward to shield the child and was hit in her chest and abdomen.

While schoolmates were conspicuous in their attendance of the children’s funerals, a huge contingent of teachers was among the 600 who attended Wright’s service at Bono Church of Christ. Leaning on each other, hugging each other, the educators said Wright’s death resonated in a personal way.

She made the ultimate sacrifice, said Sid Johnson of the Arkansas Education Assn., who spoke at Saturday’s service and presented Wright’s husband and son with a proclamation honoring her actions.

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The modest brick church was filled with mourners, as were adjacent classrooms and meeting rooms, where the service was presented via closed-circuit television. The service was also broadcast live on local radio.

Wright was a member of the church’s congregation and grew up in Bono, just north of Jonesboro.

Pastor Benny Baker called Wright a hero and urged the scores of teachers who attended the service to use her as an example.

“Do your job,” he said. “Be the teacher you are to be. There is going to be pain and there is going to be struggle. But you will honor the memory of Shannon Wright if you enter that classroom Monday, carrying with you a reaffirmed passion to teach.”

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Baker then gazed down at Wright’s toddler, Zane, and told him, “This summer, lie on a pallet and look at the stars. Remember, now Mom can’t fall down.”

Times staff writer Jube Shiver Jr. contributed to this story.


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