A teacher from Cosmopolis, Grays Harbor County, has been killed by a student at the school where he taught in Iraq.
SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — A classroom debate at a Christian school devolved into gunfire Thursday when, inexplicably, a student pulled a gun and fatally shot first his teacher, then himself.
The teacher, Jeremiah Small, from Cosmopolis, Grays Harbor County, had been with the Medes School in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah since 2006, his family says.
The murder-suicide marked the rare violent death of an American in Iraq’s most peaceful region.
Kurdish authorities said 18-year-old Biyar Sardar al Talabani shot his friend and 33-year-old gym teacher, before turning the gun on himself at the private English-speaking school during a morning sports lecture. Talabani died later at a nearby hospital.
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The U.S. State Department confirmed Small’s identity.
About twice a year, Mr. Small returned home to a large family in the Grays Harbor area. A younger brother, Mattaniah Small, described Jeremiah, the eldest of seven children, as a dedicated teacher and devoted Christian.
“Every time he left, it was a little bit of, ‘Don’t know if we’ll see you again, but here’s to hoping,’ ” Mattaniah Small, 30, said Thursday, adding that the family was devastated by their loss.
“We always figured if something did happen, it would be a political thing, not a student. He had such a love for his students, and his students really loved him,” he said.
Teachers and students told family that Talabani and Mr. Small were friends, and that they were arguing on the same side of the classroom debate, which made the shooting all the more puzzling.
“There was no apparent animosity,” Mattaniah Small said.
Eyewitnesses in Iraq described a scene of chaos in the classroom Thursday, with some students fainting in fear after shots were fired.
Ahmed Mohammed said he was sitting in the front of the classroom and Talabani was in back.
“Then I heard the gunshot,” said Mohammed, his face pale. “I turned my head and saw the body of the American teacher on the ground with blood near it. All the students started to run out of the room. Seconds later, as I was running to the reach the school gate, I heard another gunshot.”
A short time later, another student shouted that Talabani had killed himself, Mohammed said.
Sulaimaniyah police spokesman Sarkawit Mohammed, no relation to Ahmed, said the shooting appeared to be a murder-suicide, but provided no motive. He said Talabani hid the gun in his clothes before the lecture at the school, which offers elementary through secondary-grade-level classes.
Mr. Small spent much of his time at the school, making his own lesson plans and helping train other teachers. But he also opened his house to students who knew they could drop by any time to talk, said Mr. Small’s sister, Sarah Russell, 31, of Washougal, Clark County.
Mr. Small, who loved the outdoors, also tried to teach his students to rock climb and explore the outdoors.
Students described him as a devout Christian who frequently praised Christianity and prayed in the classroom.
“His faith governed every decision he made,” Mattaniah Small said. “It was exceedingly important to him.”
Mr. Small grew up moving around the country with his deeply religious parents, Dan and Rebecca Small, who ran the Shiloh Bible Camp in Cosmopolis for about a decade.
Before moving to the Grays Harbor area, the family lived in Alaska, Texas and Indiana, Mattaniah Small said.
Sulaimaniyah Mayor Zana Hama Saleh said Small was not a missionary and cast doubt that the killing was motivated by sectarian issues because Talabani “had no radical religious tendencies.”
“Maybe the student had mental problems,” Saleh said.
When Mr. Small first traveled to Iraq, he figured he would stay for a few months. But he felt he had to stay, Mattaniah Small said.
“He fell in love with the people. He just gave everything he had there,” he said. “He had virtually no time to himself. He was constantly with all the students.”
Some members of the Small family plan to fly to the region Saturday to bury Jeremiah.
“He worked with the people there, and he loved them so much,” Mattaniah Small said. “We feel like that was the most appropriate place for it.”
Sulaimaniyah is in Iraq’s comparatively peaceful Kurdish region, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad. The region has generally been free of the bombings and shootings that have plagued the rest of Iraq in recent years.
Foreigners, including American citizens, usually travel freely around northern Iraq without the armed guards or armored vehicles often used in the rest of the country.
Student Neyan Kamal said Small was highly respected, and smart.
“I’ll never forget these cruel moments,” said Kamal, who was in the classroom during the shooting. “I have no idea what the motive was — both were good people.”
Mr. Small’s family has set up a fund at Timberland Bank in his name to help collect books for a library for the school.
In addition to parents Dan and Rebecca and siblings Sarah and Mattaniah, Mr. Small is survived by siblings Caleb, Keren, Tirzah and Sharon, all living in the Grays Harbor area, and six nieces and nephews.
Material gathered by Seattle Times reporter Lark Turner, The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.