Mississippi, site of early school shooting, may have safety system among nation’s best

Published 5:14 pm Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A visitor to Pearl High School won’t get past the electronic locking doors, the latest security feature at the sprawling campus and site of one of the nation’s earliest mass school shootings.

The 1997 shooting rampage of Luke Woodham revealed to school administrators how vulnerable campuses can be. Now, in the wake of a series of deadly shootings across the country, Mississippi officials are confident their school safety system is among the best in the nation.

A crisis response team, school resource officers and a system to assess juvenile threats have helped prevent dozens of potential crises over the years, said Robert Laird, a retired FBI agent and director of school safety for the state Department of Education.

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“Mississippi is ahead of the curve on a lot of stuff. They have cameras in about all of the schools,” said Phil Bailey, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers in St. Paul, Minn. “Their school system is a very intense security program.”

Many of the state’s practices were adopted after Woodham, then 16, went on a shooting rampage at Pearl High, killing two students and wounding seven others. Woodham, who had earlier killed his mother, is serving three life sentences plus 140 years in prison.

Pearl High Principal Raymond Morgigno knew memories of the rampage would resurface after the recent shootings in Wisconsin, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

Morgigno said every possible precaution is taken to protect students at his school, located in a bedroom community less than 10 miles east of Jackson.

“If somebody comes on the campus, they’re not coming through here,” said Morgigno, pointing to the locked, thick wooden and glass doors.

Security cameras are posted at the entrance and a visitor must stop at a receptionist’s desk and sign in before they’re buzzed into the commons area, a gathering place for students between classes and the spot where cheerleaders practice their routines.

Pearl High also is the state’s pilot school for a new Internet messaging system that allows students to send anonymous messages to Morgigno and school counselors about threats and other problems.

Many of Mississippi’s practices are among those recommended by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence based at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Jane Grady, the center’s assistant director, said there’s been no research on which plans are more effective, but a comprehensive approach is best, including resource officers, a tip line, an emergency plan and limited access points on campus.

“A lot of schools have crisis plans, but they aren’t practiced. When an event happens isn’t the time to pull a book off the shelf and practice what you’re trying to do,” Grady said.

Laird said the state’s school resource officer program “has just been phenomenal.” The program picked up momentum around 2000, and currently there are more than 200 resource officers in K-12 schools.

The resource officers often build strong relationships with students, making the teens feel comfortable sharing information with them, Grady said.

“That’s one of the problems in most places, that a lot of people don’t have resource officers,” she said. “Kids really need somebody to come to with some of these issues. In a lot of cases, kids are fearful.”

Bailey has about 15,000 resource officers and educators in his nonprofit’s database, but the number has declined over the years as federal funding was reduced for Community Oriented Policing Services hiring grants. In many cases, the grants help pay the salaries of resource officers.

Bailey said resource officers were in demand after the 1990s school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., and Littleton, Colo., the site of the Columbine High massacre. He’s hopeful federal officials may decide to direct more funding to the COPS program.

“I believe that they’ll have to reevaluate that police officers trained in the schools have prevented a lot of violence from happening,” Bailey said.