Could a tragedy like the one at Pearl High happen again? - - Jackson, MS

Could a tragedy like the one at Pearl High happen again?

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By Julie Straw - bio | email | twitter

 PEARL, MS (WLBT) - One of the safest places for your children should be inside the classroom, but recent violent acts at local schools have parents questioning the security of their students.  The fear is very real. 

Three weeks ago, a teen snuck a gun passed metal detectors at Wingfield High School and fired it in a bathroom.  About a year ago a Clinton High student was injured when she was attacked by another teen with a knife.  Could any of these incidents have turned into a massive tragedy? 

The gunshots that pierced Pearl High School on October 1, 1997 rippled fear and disbelief throughout the country. 

"Walked in with a big ol' gun, pulled it out and started shooting," said one student. 

"People were running, screaming scattering around," said another student who witnessed the shooting.

16 year old Luke Woodham's ten minute shooting spree ended with two students dead and seven wounded. 

For Dr. William Dodson, the Superintendent of Pearl Public Schools at the time, the massacre seemed random and he describes "completely out of the blue."  He devoted the following ten years to researching what he could not understand and wrote his findings in a book If Only I Had Known: A True Story.

"If I had known I think I could have prevented the incident from happening," said Dr. Dodson.

What he knows does not focus on metal detectors or beefed up campus security, even though both have since become prevalent in schools across the country.  He started with where school shootings typically occur, in suburbs and small towns.

"There's never been one of these type shootings in an inner city school. There's never been one at an alternative school," said Dr. Dodson.

He said there was something about communities such as Pearl and Littleton, Colorado, home to Columbine High, that aggravates students like Woodham.  Dodson calls them "random actors."  It is a behavioral profile term coined by investigative journalist and author Dan Korem who is frequently mentioned in the book.

"They're unique.  They're out of the box people I call them.  They do things that you would not think other students would do," said Dr. Dodson.

A school counselor was quoted in Dodson's book saying she had worried about the teen.  He surrounded himself with other troubled boys who were later arrested as co-conspirators.

"He befriended five other students and they led him down a path that was very destructive," said Dodson.

According to Dodson, 2% to 4% of students in junior high and high school have "random actor" traits.  Prevention starts with identifying these students.

"Teachers are the key because they can identify a random actor and then we can get help to them," said Dodson.

Help in the form of an intervention plan, which Dodson said includes protection from bullying and isolation.  Plus, it would include pairing them with adult mentors to provide encouragement and guidance.  It is a strategy that works.  Dodson said more than 20,000 law enforcement and education professionals use this method and have prevented countless attacks like the one that forever changed Pearl.

"This is something we hope will never happen again," said Dodson.

Dr. Dodson travels the country speaking on this very issue. His book can be found at Lemuria Books in Jackson or on

Luke Woodham is serving three life sentences at Parchman prison.


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