Newtown shooting sadly familiar for Mo. teacher
CLINTON THOMAS,St. Joseph News-Press
CAMERON, Mo. (AP) — Ask a teacher or parent to respond to news of a school shooting, and their answer usually begins with the same phrase: What if?
But for Jamie Berry, a health teacher at Cameron Middle School, the question brings out an answer packed with emotion only an unlucky few can understand: "I remember."
Before names like Newtown or Columbine entered the public conscience, Berry was a seventh grader at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark. On March 24, 1998, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, pulled the school's fire alarm and hid behind nearby trees while students and teachers assembled outside. Then they opened fire, killing four students and one teacher and wounding 10 others.
Berry escaped unscathed, but emotional scars remain.
Since Jonesboro, more than 120 people have died in 28 school shootings in the United States. Each tragedy adds a new batch of grieving families and traumatized survivors, while forcing people like Berry to relive their own day of terror.
"When I see these kids in Connecticut, I don't understand exactly what they're going through," Berry said. "I know a little more than most, but every one of us experienced it in our own way."
Nearly 15 years later, Berry has developed the ability to tell her story without tears.
Shortly after lunch, the fire alarm went off and she followed her classmates to a designated spot outside. While her teacher took roll, Berry was distracted by something she saw across the courtyard. A group of students appeared to be ducking for cover. She heard loud popping noises, but with a new wing of the school under construction, she assumed it was the normal banging of hammers and other tools students had grown used to in recent weeks.
"After a while I heard my teacher yelling 'Jamie? Jamie? Jamie! We're trying to take roll,'" Berry said. "I turned around and said 'I think something is going on over there.' That's when the principal ran over and yelled for us to run to the gym."
The next moments showed how even an organized crisis management plan can have its flaws. Like many schools, Westside had security doors that locked from the outside to keep intruders from entering the building. In this case, the locked doors made it harder for teachers and students trapped outside to escape the shooters.
"They were sitting ducks because they couldn't get back in," Berry said.
Once she arrived in the gym, Berry said she began to take a mental inventory of her friends. She hadn't had time to recognize the bodies she passed during her dash to safety, but she couldn't find her friend Jenna in the crowd. She later learned Jenna had been shot and was among those lucky enough to survive.
A girl named Brittney, though not a close friend at the time, was shot in the knee and also survived. Brittney eventually became one of Berry's bridesmaids when she married her husband, Richard, who teaches and coaches basketball at Cameron High School.
None of the five victims were close friends, though she knew them all. One was a cousin of a good friend. Another loaned her an eraser in art class, which Berry has kept to this day.
Berry said she and those who escaped waited in the gym for several hours until their families arrived to take them home. At one point, the parents of a long-time neighbor Berry knew as Drew showed up. The authorities told them their son was safe, but the news was not good. Drew was one of the shooters.
Berry knew Drew well and had spent plenty of time in his house while her mother and older siblings were at work. She said it was a normal home, not an environment one would expect to produce a mass murderer.
Even so, hindsight revealed warning signs. Months before, Berry had found one of her cats dead in a trash can. The day before the shooting, Drew confessed he had shot the cat with a BB gun, which led to a shouting match between the two. That same day, he said he "had a lot of killing to do" and told students they would find out who would die the next day.
In a pre-Columbine world, children still viewed such words as youthful exaggeration. Young teens often make serious threats without following through, and the eight years Berry lived next to Drew gave her no reason to believe his case was any different.
"You talk about warning signs, but show me a boy that doesn't have so-called 'warning signs,' especially in a hunting community like ours, where all the boys shot things with BB guns growing up," Berry said. "You really can't know until it's too late."
As years passed, Berry and her classmates learned to accept the hardship they were forced to endure. They met with students from Columbine High School and Conyers, Ga., to help them cope with their own tragedies.
The pain got better, but it never went away.
During her time as a student-teacher at another middle school in Jonesboro, Berry almost quit the profession after a fire drill when her students started joking about shooters showing up. Her first teaching job was at Westside, where she led a ceremony marking the tragedy's 10th anniversary.
In Cameron, one of the co-workers who knows the story calls to warn her on days when emergency drills are planned. Berry used to tell her eighth grade health class about her past as part of a lesson on post-traumatic stress disorder, but has since changed her curriculum.
After finishing her story, Berry reflects on the recent events in Connecticut as a parent. She tries to lighten the mood with a joke that her 2-year-old daughter, Kendall, will be home-schooled, along with another child she and her husband are expecting next year.
As she reviews the list of names in her head, she realizes it's the first shooting where the victims are younger than those who died in Jonesboro, with the exception of one that happened in an Amish community. One of the children, James Mattioli, shared her birthday. The tears finally start to come.
"The little kids got me," she said. "I thought I could make it without crying, but I'm not there yet."