Education

Police thought they were responding to shots fired at a school. What they found were scared kids.

The quietness that filled North Gulfport Middle School’s halls stuck with Leonard Papania hours later — so did the ensuing response prompted by calls of possible shots fired on the school’s campus.

The Gulfport police chief joined his officers Thursday afternoon as they investigated two reports of shots fired at the school.

While talking with reporters Thursday evening, Papania said he could understand how scared students might think they heard gunfire while they were sheltered.

“You really have to put yourself in the place of these children under lockdown,” Papania said. “They’re watching the news, too. They’re in a secured classroom with desks in front, they’ve been asked to be quiet and they’re scared.’”

Police responded after two students told a teacher about an “intruder” or “potentially prohibited person” on the campus, Papania said. It’s believed the scare was prompted by a threat at the school that was investigated Wednesday.

The teacher notified the school resource officer, who put the campus on lockdown and requested additional police personnel.

While the school was on lockdown, Papania said, police received two more calls of shots fired on the school’s campus.

“Obviously this impacted our approach,” he said. “We responded with a large contingency of Gulfport police officers and began doing what we’re trained to do.

“Officers entered the campus, secured the outer perimeter and began going room to room, evaluating the campus.”

At that point, Papania said, they determined there was no intruder but they were able to identify the callers.

“What it looks like is the first students who had notified the staff member heard from a person who may have heard from another person,” he said. “We believe those two students that went to the staff member were truly acting in good faith and doing what we want them to do.”

Along with his officers, Papania helped enter barricaded classrooms to clear potential threats.

“It was a very quiet place as we were clearing it ... I saw these children. They were truly scared. This staff did great. If they perceived they heard something, then they heard something,” he said. “Fortunately we were able to determine nothing catastrophic happened. My heart goes out to these kids. That’s a lot to carry, a whole lot to carry for a child and an educator.

“We send them to safe places to learn and that’s what we have to continue to have.”

Papania commended everyone involved in Thursday’s scare.

“What I saw that staff do today, what I saw those students do today and what I saw our police officers do today was everything that needs to happen,” he said. “It was a dry run, and thank God for that. We don’t want our kids to be in peril, but in the world we live in to see that performance by students, staff and police, we should be thankful it was handled as such.”

Papania had a message for parents who are considering holding their children back from school.

“I know a lot of parents are going to be looking at the news tonight and try and determine if they should send their child to school tomorrow or not,” he said. “At some point we have to calm down and get about the business of being who we are. I encourage you to send your kids to school tomorrow. We’re going to have an enhanced presence.”

Papania said no misconduct was found during Thursday’s investigation.

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

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