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11-year-old killed in Iowa school shooting was a joyful boy known as ‘Smiley,’ his mother says

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Posted at 6:25 PM, Jan 06, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-06 18:25:37-05

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Ahmir Jolliff dashed out of his home in Perry Thursday morning, eager to see his friends on the first day back to school after winter break.

It was vintage Ahmir — known as “Smiley” around his house — an 11-year-old whirlwind of cheerful activity. He kept a trunk of toys unlocked in the front yard so anyone could play with them, his mother said. He loved soccer, played the tuba and sang in choir. He had a habit of touching people on their shoulder and asking them how their day was.

Ahmir was killed Thursday before class even started, when a 17-year-old student at Perry High School opened fire in the cafeteria. The sixth-grader, who attended the middle school that’s connected to the high school, was shot three times, authorities said. Seven others, including the school’s principal, two other staff members and four students, were wounded before the shooter died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ahmir’s mother, Erica Jolliff, said on that morning, her son couldn’t wait to get to school and left minutes ahead of his mom and sister, who is in ninth-grade. Jolliff soon found herself scouring the streets for her children when authorities sped into town and blocked access to the complex after the shooting. She found her daughter unharmed. But she couldn’t find Ahmir.

“I just had a feeling he was still in that building,” she said.

Jolliff said she was horrified to hear that friends of 17-year-old Dylan Butler, who police have identified as the shooter, say he was bullied for years and that teachers and school officials did nothing to protect him.

“We send our condolences to the family of Dylan; they’re in our prayers and we’re truly sorry for his loss as well,” she said in an interview late Friday with The Associated Press.

The shooting happened just after 7:30 a.m. Thursday, shortly before classes were set to begin on the first day back after winter break. Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation spokesman Mitch Mortvedt told the AP the shooting started in the cafeteria, where students from several grades were eating breakfast, then spilled outside the cafeteria but was contained to the north end of the school.

Authorities said Butler had a pump-action shotgun and a small-caliber handgun. Mortvedt said authorities also found a “pretty rudimentary” improvised explosive device in Butler’s belongings, and it was rendered safe.

Two friends and their mother who spoke with the AP said Butler was a quiet person who had been bullied since elementary school. Investigators are still working to get a “good grasp of who Dylan was,” Mortvedt said. The investigation will include Butler’s background along with the “environment of the school,” he said.

Superintendent Clark Wicks wouldn’t discuss whether Butler had been bullied, but he defended the way his district responds to those situations, saying: “We take every bullying situation seriously and our goal is to always have that safe and inviting atmosphere.”

Perry has about 8,000 residents and is about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of Des Moines, on the edge of the state capital’s metropolitan area. The high school is part of the 1,785-student Perry Community School District.

Jolliff remembered her son as a font of happiness and sociability, who seemingly knew everyone in town and whose ample dimples were constantly lit up by a perpetual grin.

“He was so well-loved and he loved everyone,” she said. “He’s such an outgoing person.”

Jolliff said she didn’t know anything about Butler’s situation, but had sympathy for him. Jolliff says she hopes that administrators have learned the importance of checking on students to make sure they’re ok.

“I just pray that what we lost isn’t in vain and that other things can be put in place with the school system,” Jolliff said.