Guest Column

The Eye of the Storm: One Year Later

by William H. Dodson


No one ever told me 30 years ago that teaching and school administration would be easy, and I never expected it to be. I knew it would offer challenges and its share of problems but figured the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of teen-agers was compelling enough to pursue such a career.

As superintendent in a small Mississippi town, I have seen so much more of both elements than I ever imagined. The rewards have far exceeded my expectations, but so have the challenges. In my first administrative role as an assistant principal in an inner-city high school in the Mississippi Delta, my duties involved breaking up racial fights, mediating student conflicts, resolving problems from student walkouts and meeting with angry parents. Plenty of time was spent on court appearances and civil rights battles.

But nothing could prepare me for the events of Oct. 1, 1997--the day Luke Woodham, a 16-year-old sophomore, walked into Pearl High School with a 30-30 hunting rifle concealed under his coat and began shooting. Woodham deliberately shot point blank the two students he had chosen to kill. As he continued to fire indiscriminately in the commons area, where students gather at the start of each morning, seven additional students were wounded while attempting to flee the gunfire.

While the shooting was in progress, Woodham was apprehended in a heroic act by Joel Myrick, an assistant principal. Myrick had slipped out of the commons area, ran to his car, grabbed his military weapon and apprehended the shooter outside the school building as he tried to leave the campus.


Disbelief and Fear
The aftermath of the tragedy--especially the massive and continuing national media coverage--left me and my colleagues ill-prepared for the far-reaching effects our community would face over the ensuing months. Ironically, the incident coincided with the first day of state accreditation tests, which are used by the Mississippi Department of Education to assess a school district's performance. It was no surprise that the early-morning happenings produced negative consequences on our district's test scores and jeopardized our academic standing.

Other, more immediate and complex problems quickly arose. Disbelief and fear pervaded the school system and the community as news of the violence quickly spread on radio and television and by word-of-mouth.

In retrospect, the tumultuous civil rights problems of the 1970s seemed so difficult and ominous at the time I had to deal with them, but the sad and gruesome activities that I endured following the early morning shooting one year ago in Pearl, Miss., made them seem more like a quiet day at the office.

When I arrived at the high school about 20 minutes after the shooting, I witnessed a scene for which all the graduate-level classes in educational administration and 30 years of professional experience could not prepare me. I stepped over the body of one student who had been declared dead by the paramedics on the scene and saw a teacher holding another student who was soon to die. By that time, seven injured students were being given attention by teachers, counselors and medical personnel.

The next two hours were spent trying to notify parents of the horrible events. Our phone system was jammed with parents calling in to find out the status of their children. We would not have been able to complete our contacts had it not been for the cellular phones provided by the law enforcement personnel on the scene. The tragedy was made worse by the fact parents had least expected school to be the final place to see their child alive.

A Series of Tragedies
Pearl, Miss., is located in the southern end of the Bible belt. It's a community where we had never considered spending money on security. We had few drug problems and our principals ran very disciplined schools. No one would have expected our quiet community of 20,000 residents to serve as the starting point of a yearlong string of school-based incidents of violence.

Sadly, Pearl now will be remembered as the first in a series of tragedies over the 1997-98 school year that have brought similar grief to parents and educators in Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., Springfield, Ore., and Richmond, Va. In these communities, a total of 11 students and two teachers have lost their lives and 40 students have been injured. In two of the cases, one or more parents were killed by the perpetrators.

Although I do not claim to have any answers for the causes of such senseless acts or solutions for preventing the next episode, I do believe educators have a responsibility--along with families, religious institutions, community agencies and the courts--for responding in meaningful ways.

Schools must emphasize more character education, conflict-resolution training, student-run religious clubs and peer mediation. Children cannot be allowed to treat life as if it is a movie in which they can emulate what they see on the screen in the theater. There must be consequences to actions.

Luke Woodham has come to this stark realization. He now has been sentenced to three life terms in state prison for the murders of three people plus 20 years for each of the seven counts of assault on the injured Pearl students. We hope the court's decisions and directive will bring closure to the suffering in our community. We pray for guidance in providing strong deterrents to keep any young person from ever thinking that what happened in our school or in any of the others might be a solution to their own problems. Most of all we pray for the eye of the storm, a calm amidst the turmoil.

William Dodson is superintendent of Pearl Public Schools, 3375 Highway 80 East, Pearl, Miss. 39208. E-mail: wdodson%ppss@k12.ms.us. He is a former member of the AASA Site Administrators Advisory Committee and the Resolutions Committee.