They Turned Off The Fire Alarm

The first thing they did Thursday at Westside Middle School was disconnect the fire alarm, the same one that lured four students and a teacher to their death in a barrage of gunfire.

Classes resumed with nervous parents taking their frightened children to school buses that were mostly empty and crisis counselors urging students to talk about their grief and confusion.

The middle-school shootout raised questions across the nation this week about school violence. Speaking from Africa, where he is on a 12-day trip, President Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, asked Attorney General Janet Reno to address the question of school safety.

Students wore white ribbons as they filed past red and white bouquets that lined the walkway where the victims were gunned down Tuesday. A flowered cross hung from the flagpole, and the flag flew at half-staff.

No lessons were taught, and all outdoor activities were canceled, including recess. Students made cards for the 11 people who were wounded, including the five who remained hospitalized Thursday.

Still, twice as many children as normal in the 250-student school stayed home. Erica Swindle, 12, who watched a friend die, said she wasn't ready to face her demons just yet.

"It scares you real bad," said Erica. "I could have been shot in the back."

Tristian McGowan, 13, one of the wounded and a cousin of one of the boys arrested, returned with his arm in a sling.

Colby Brooks, 12, said he didn't see the point in putting it off.

"It's just going to be as bad Monday as it is today," he said. "Life goes on, and from there we're going to start a new beginning."

Two students Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Drew Golden, 11 are being held on five counts each of murder and 10 counts of battery.

Police say the two, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage and armed with rifles and handguns, ambushed a group of classmates and staff members who had left the school because of a fake fire alarm.

Drew's grandfather, Doug Golden, said Wednesday that his grandson had confessed to pulling the alarm and to stealing guns and ammunition from his house.

Mitchell's stepbrother, Monty, a fifth-grader, didn't go to school Thursday, but his teachers came to his house with a letter from his classmates saying they still liked him and wanted him to return, Monty's father said.

But Terry Woodard said he wasn't ready to send his son back.

"I've been around this town," Woodard said. "These people don't forgive. ... They don't see it that Monty didn't have nothing to do with it. They just see him as Mitchell's brother."

Mitchell's father, Scott Johnson, a truck driver from Minnesota, said Thursday that his son had expressed remorse.

"My son is not a monster," he told "NBC Nightly News" and ABC's "World News Tonight."/b>

"I don't have an explanation for any of this. Nobody does," he said.

Before students arrived, high-powered spray guns were used to clean the walkway of blood and and the fire alarm was turned off.

Principal Karen Curtner acknowledged the issue of balancing fire safety against the fears of students if the alarm went off would have to be addressed. But she said she ordered the alarm shut off "so we wouldn't have any of those problems today."

The day began with an hourlong counseling session in the cafeteria. Counselors paid particular attention to the class of Shannon Wright, the teacher who was killed protecting one of her students.

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