'Not something you forget'

Jean Ashcraft, a long-time resident of Jonesboro, Arkansas, vividly remembers the day seven years ago when two boys opened fire on a courtyard full of students and teachers at an Arkansas middle school, killing four girls and a teacher.

BY SUSAN KIM | JONESBORO, Ark. | August 15, 2005

"You cannot walk in those shoes unless you lost someone."

—Jean Ashcraft

Jean Ashcraft, a long-time resident of Jonesboro, Arkansas, vividly remembers the day seven years ago when two boys opened fire on a courtyard full of students and teachers at an Arkansas middle school, killing four girls and a teacher.

"I was working at the time," said Ashcraft, now a retired insurance agent, "and it was just one of those things you don't believe. We just all sat by the television and listened to the radio."

Now for Ashcraft and other Jonesboro residents, the television and radio are once again bringing news about that tragedy.

Under a now-changed Arkansas law, the boys were charged as delinquents, which meant they could be held in jail only until they were 18. Federal prosecutors added firearms violations which kept them in prison for three more years. One of the boys turned 21 last week and could not legally be held any longer. The other will be released in 2007.

Residents in the town of 59,000 people said the recent news has brought back recollections of the tragedy - and some conflicting feelings, too.

"Personally, I think that there has been some healing but that there is also still some anger about the fact that he can be walking the streets now and that the second one can be walking the streets in a few years now. I think there is resentment that the law is not adequate - even though now that law is fixed," said Ashcraft.

Forgiveness is a difficult concept for Jonesboro right now, she added.

"I am a faith-based person," said Ashcraft, who now works for The Salvation Army but spoke from a personal perspective. "And I do believe that God can forgive anything. But I didn't have a grandchild or child who was killed. You cannot walk in those shoes unless you lost someone. If I was in those shoes, I'm not sure I would be able to forgive. I remember it vividly. It's not something that you forget easily."

Churches and faith-based groups are involved in Jonesboro's long-term healing, said David Gill, director of the Presbyterian-affiliated Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center.

Ferncliff offered camps for kids who were affected by the violence. "Our last camp was 2002, as the kids started graduating and moving on," said Gill. "In 2004, one of the Jonesboro campers came back as a counselor (for another camp for children affected by public violence)," he said. "There are also a few kids who still occasionally e-mail and stay in touch a bit."

While residents try to cope with anger, some also said they are praying for the families of the convicted shooters. "I feel for the two boys' families," said Ashcraft.

The gunmen stole high-powered rifles from one of the boy's grandfathers. "That family was crucified because of the acts of their child," said Ashcraft. "Those grandparents did no more or less than many grandparents do around here - teach your grandsons how to hunt and fish."

Down the street, the Rev. Bruce Tippit, pastor at the First Baptist Church, remembers trying to comfort families immediately after the shooting. "We are about two blocks from a hospital, and myself and our children's minister were waiting in the area where the victims' families were located to hear news about their children. Today we have some folks personally in our church who were impacted in one degree or another."

Hearing the news about the gunman's release brings back a lot of memories, said Tippit, but he believes most people don't want vengeance - they want justice, he said. "More what people want is a sense of justice. It does not seem just that someone can kill five people and walk out of jail. It's not just for someone who does that as an adult. The factor of justice is what has escaped us," he said. "It's not sinful to feel angry over that."

Right before the trials of the boys, First Baptist Church tried to offer a healing seminar, said Tippit. "We had some folks from a prison fellowship group, and many people who were on site during the tragedy. I mean, we even flew in people from Washington, D.C., and they were all ready to host this seminar of healing. We had it all planned and publicized - and nobody came. I mean, nobody came."

A couple weeks later, the trials began, Tippit said. "And it was like the circus came back to town. The media satellite trucks were back. I was so frustrated. We tried to do something positive with the healing seminar and it wasn't the right thing. But then I called the victim's assistance program here in town, and asked if there was anything to be done, and they said they didn't have a place for the families to go eat."

Tippit called some volunteers, and, he said, "within a short period of time, we had a complete meal prepared for 150 folks who were part of that day," he said. "We had arranged with sheriff's deputies, and we prohibited all media from being on the property. People were able to walk out of the courthouse, get escorted a block and a half down the street, and into doors of our fellowship hall. They came to an oasis. We had a good meal.

"What we did was, as Jesus would say, we gave a cup of cold water," said Tippit. "It was not what we intended but it's what the families needed."

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