In a state that’s known for being 50th in many things, we will forever be known for being the first for one thing: school shootings.
Up to that moment, I had never in my life heard of such a thing. A teenager going into a school with a high powered rifle and mowing down classmates? Impossible. High school kids don’t shoot classmates. Sure, kids get bullied in school. It’s an unfortunate reality. But you’d never see one of them hatch a plan to terrorize a school. I mean, it just doesn’t happen. But it did.
Twenty-four years ago, Pearl High student, Luke Woodham, woke up, got dressed, put a pillow over his mother’s head and stabbed her to death. In a confession to police, Woodham said it was the only way he knew to get his mom’s car and rifle away from the home. Woodham then pulled up to his school around 8:00 a.m., walked in and shot both Christina Menefee and Lydia Dew. Both would die from their wounds. Over the course of ten horrific minutes, Woodham would go on to injure 7 other people that day. He would have the distinction of being the first to start a macabre trend that led to the now infamous Columbine shootings in April of 1999.
I remember watching the news clips in utter shock. I was 27 years old in 1997, and had seen a lot in those years, but the images of that shooting scared the hell out of me. This was never something I expected to happen in Mississippi. But it forever changed my idea of what could happen here if we weren’t careful. 1997, of course, pre-dates the internet age. There was no Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. No Tik Tok. And yet, when you dig deeper into Luke Woodham’s confession, there is the tragic story of a kid who didn’t feel loved.
He suffered from early depression. He was teased by other kids in school, and that teasing had turned physical. He was scorned by his mother. And, ultimately, hurt by the first girl he ever had feelings for. And because he felt there was no outlet, Woodham turned to the occult and a circle of friends who worshipped Satan. It would lead him down a road that changed this country forever. And not for the better.
In 2007, 32 students were killed on the campus of Virginia Tech. Then 20 elementary school kids were killed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Then Florida. Then Texas. Then Oregon, Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, and Washington State would follow with similar actions. What would seem like an anomaly had now become a part of American culture. And during the pandemic, we’ve seen mass shootings occur almost weekly. I shouldn’t be numb to it.
Now, in this digital age, bullying has gone viral. Not only are kids being teased at school but also during after school hours when they go online and read hurtful comments from classmates. Teachers are already hard pressed to step in when students experience the things Woodham did. It’s almost impossible to stop it when it reaches social media. The pressure of being a young student these days is much worse than it was in my day. Couple that with Republicans and gun nuts attempting to make firearms more accessible and you have the perfect storm for more mayhem.
I’m not making excuses for Woodham. He’s paying for his crimes and will never see daylight as a free man again. But as we mark the anniversary of his rampage, we need to protect our children. All of them. The popular kids and the athletes. The class clowns and the gifted students. The “nerds”, the gamers, and the unconventional. We need to ensure that there are outlets for those kids who don’t feel school is a safe place. We need to create an outlet for those who may not have the benefit of a peaceful home experience. Adults and administrators both need to be able to pick up on the signs. It appears that these are all the things Luke Woodham lacked. And, it serves to question, if he would have had these things, would it have prevented him from taking lives that day?
I hope we’ve learned our lesson. At least in Mississippi.