SPECIAL REPORT- Life After Parkland: How School Shootings Affected Local Elections

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February 14, 2019 marks the one year anniversary of the mass shooting where 17 people were murdered in Parkland, Florida. This shooting brings painful memories for people in the Natural State who went through a similar traumatic event, including Heather Brand.

Heather Brand was a sixth grader at Westside Middle School in 1998.

“It was my 12th birthday. So, of course, I remember that,” Brand said. “Myself and a group of friends were going to the movies by ourselves for the first time that night so it was a big deal.”

Brand and her friends never made it to the movies that night after what seemed like a routine fire alarm during school. 

“Everyone was just running,” Brand remembered. “And it was like, ‘well this is just a fire alarm. Why are we running?'” 

On March 24, 1998, 11-year-old Andrew Golden pulled the fire alarm at Westside Middle School and ran to meet 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson in a nearby wooded area. As people poured out of the building, the pair opened fire killing four students, a teacher and injuring ten others.

The Westside shooting was one of the first of many mass school shootings to come.

According to the US Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, 2018 was the worst year on record for gun violence incidents in schools.

A gun violence incident is defined as whenever a gun is brandished, fired ar when a bullet hits school property regardless of the number of victims. 

There were 97 gun violence incidents in 2018 nationwide. That’s up 60% from the previous high of 59 incidents in 2006.

“Anytime a disaster like that happens throughout the country, it affects all of us,” said Denise Garner, newly elected state representative for District 84.

Garner unseated gun advocate Charlie Collins after he served four terms. Collins is known for co-sponsoring the campus carry law, which allows someone with a license and specific training to have a gun while at a state college.

“I think that I’m here because of a legislator that went too far to the extreme,” Garner said.

Now settled into her seat, Garner has a different opinion than fellow lawmaker, Bart Hester about how to protect kids in schools. 

“I certainly support arming teachers that have the proper background and are willing to go through the proper training,” Hester said.

“We have local police that can get there in a hurry, we don’t need teachers with guns,’ Garner said.

In the River Valley, the Clarksville School District has armed teachers for the past several years.

“The reality is that these things unfold in such rapid order that you’ve got to have someone in the building that is right there when it occurs,” said Clarksville district superintendent, David Hopkins.

Dr. David Hopkins suggested arming teachers after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 after parents in his district raised concerns about their children’s safety.

“A lot of people suggested throwing books and rocks and things of that nature. But that’s really ridiculous in my opinion,” Hopkins said. 

Clarksville High School teacher, Lance Fetters hesitated at the idea of guns in schools at first, but now carries as he teaches. He hasn’t had to use it but said he is ready if that time comes.

“If you pull your firearm, it better be life or death,” Fetters said. “There is no situation other than a gun in this school that my firearm comes out of the holster.”

Clarksville senior Bennett Ashlock often forgets teachers are armed but said he feels safer because of it. 

“We have security guards just about everywhere,” Ashlock said. “Protecting money, protecting artifacts and stuff. I feel like students or children are pretty valuable and we need to protect those too.” 

A protection Brand isn’t too sure about, believing her kids are safe as is at school.

Brand is now married to a fellow shooting survivior and has two daughters in the same district the Westside shooting happened just over 20 years ago.

“What happened on that day is very much a part of me,” Brand said. “It has shaped me as an individual, it has shaped me as an adult, it’s shaped me as a parent. But I refuse to let it define me.”

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