Education

Here’s how law enforcement officers and schools are keeping Coast students safe

Harrison County Sheriff's Deputy Walter Eighmey checks classrooms at West Wortham Elementary & Middle School on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Eighmey has been a school resource officer at the school for 10 years.
Harrison County Sheriff's Deputy Walter Eighmey checks classrooms at West Wortham Elementary & Middle School on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Eighmey has been a school resource officer at the school for 10 years. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

It’s not the norm for Mississippi Coast schools to call in law enforcement to patrol campuses and classrooms for a threat of a possible shooter.

But these are unusual times.

Reports of potential threats on social media or by word of mouth have led to scary situations on school campuses across the six counties in South Mississippi.

▪ Fourteen schools have investigated reports of threats of violence since the Valentine’s Day shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida.

▪ Fifteen threats have been investigated — including a report of shots fired at North Gulfport Middle School — and nine students have been arrested.

▪ Ten of 16 public school districts, more than half, have called in law enforcement officers. No private schools in the region have reported potential threats.

Gulfport police were visible at North Gulfport Middle School on Friday “to make students and staff feel comfortable,” a police spokesman said. The school was placed on lockdown Thursday over a report from two students who called police to say they had heard gunfire, a police official said.

Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania addresses the lockdown at North Gulfport Middle School on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, after students reported hearing gunshots. Papania praised students for being cautious and taking the necessary course of actio

Harrison County deputies were at most of the rural school campuses as well on Friday. The night before, deputies arrested a 15-year-old who had posted on Instagram that he planned to harm students, Sheriff Troy Peterson said.

“When I was growing up, my Dad said we kids were crazy,” Peterson said. “But never like this. Times are different.”

School resource officers are on duty at all of the Harrison County School District’s campuses throughout the week, Peterson said. The SROs will continue to monitor security at the schools, he said.

The Biloxi School District called in extra private security officers at Biloxi High on Friday; at least one of them was armed.

Officials had warned the public of a false alarm after screenshot of a threat at “BHS” was shared, but the original message referred to Belen High School in New Mexico. Police there arrested a 16-year-old.

A Biloxi parent had shared the “BHS” message and warned parents of Biloxi High students to keep them at home.

Planning pays off

School and police officials across the region say their ongoing relationships with each other have paid off when threats came up.

Gulfport police, for instance, routinely stop in at school campuses. They become acquainted with staff and resource officers, and familiarize themselves with the layout of campuses in case there’s a need for an emergency response.

“We have been preparing and training for school events for years,” Gulfport Police Sgt. Clayton Fulks said.

“That is why Thursday went as well as it did,” Fulks said of the shooting scare.

About 12,000 to 13,000 students and staff are on campuses in the city each day, Police Chief Leonard Papania said.

“It’s a specific population we try to protect by building relationships with staff and students, using school resource officers and visits by patrol officers and even our administrators,” Papania said.

The school and police officers also try to build relationships with students, he said, and have in the past deterred criminal acts because of those relationships.

Papania said he and his staff will continue to monitor the schools in case more police presence is needed.

Long Beach police also have increased patrols and visibility at the high school, school district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Biggs said. Two 17-year-olds were arrested Friday in connection with a threat reported at Long Beach High.

‘Settling down’ from ‘chaos’

Things are settling down at Pearl River Central High after a couple of “chaotic” days following a threat reported on Wednesday, Superintendent Alan Lumpkin said. There was no viable threat, he said.

“We have certified police officers on campus and have a good partnership with the sheriff’s department and it really works,” Lumpkin said.

“There’s an increased awareness on our campus and on all campuses across the nation. You have to take every report of a threat seriously and spend the time to run every lead down and do a threat assessment. We are very blessed to have our own campus police and a good partnership with the sheriff’s department.”

That partnership helped when reports of violence were made at Gautier Middle School, Gautier High School and Pascagoula High School, said Pascagoula-Gautier Schools Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich.

The school district has its own campus police department, and officers visit campuses, walk through the school halls and build relationships, Rodolfich said.

Most of the information received from threats at schools in that district were “recycled threats from other parts of the state,” school district spokeswoman Debbie Anglin said.

“There were no real threats.”

Copycats and pranks

Pam Touchard, superintendent of George County Schools, said the sheriff’s department and Lucedale police were helpful in the investigation of a threat reported at George County High. But adults can help, she said.

“While copycat attention-seekers are notorious for fanning the flames of public concern, it is our job as parents and leaders to discourage pranks or jokes, or the perpetuation of rumors,” Touchard said.

“Any credible threat to our schools or children will be dealt with as swiftly and thoroughly as the current laws allow. We would like to ask for your cooperation in maintaining a calm and positive atmosphere for our children as they strive to receive a stellar education in these uncertain times.”

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

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