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‘We chose to let it make us stronger’: Former Pearl High School principal reflects on 1997 school shooting

Tragedies happen on normal days.

That was part of the message from former Pearl High School principal Roy Balentine during a professional development session with teachers at Vicksburg Catholic Schools last week.

October 1, 1997, was a normal day at Pearl High School before a gunman walked into the building before school started and opened fire killing two students and injuring seven more. Balentine was the principal of the school at the time having just started a few months earlier in July.

“Normal day, just like when you came to work this morning,” Balentine said. “Everything you expected to be fine and it was fine. I was a brand-new principal, all my teachers and students coming to school. These things don’t happen at the most opportune times. Day No. 2 of the state test is when the shooting occurred, before school.”

Luke Woodham, the shooter at Pearl, killed his mother before the shooting at the school. The shooting occurred on a Wednesday and Balentine said they reopened the following Monday.

“A large-scale tragedy can do one of two things for you,” Balentine said. “That is either it can destroy you, or it can make you stronger. You as an organization in those cases, God forbid if they happen, you decide what of those two things it is going to be. Are we going to let this destroy us or are we going to let this make us stronger? In the case of Pearl High School, we chose to let it make us stronger.”

Balentine spoke to the VCS teachers about his experience during and after the shooting and discussed what teachers can look for as warning signs to help prevent similar tragedies from happening.

“If you look at what we see on the news, what Roy experienced was the first Columbine, and if you look at the interval between those things its become shorter and shorter,” St. Aloysius principal Buddy Strickland said of why they invite Balentine to speak. “It is important because of awareness. What’s out there? How can we be diligent? Is there anything we can do to forestall this? It is about more than just school shootings. It’s about what we do every day to ensure the safety of the kids.”

Balentine pointed out to the teachers assembled that one of their biggest allies in preventing a tragedy from occurring are the students themselves. Balentine recommended that the school have a safe method in place where students can let teachers or administrators know if they are worried a classmate may pose a threat or notice anything suspicious.

Balentine also suggested teachers be on the lookout for warning signs such as students become more socially withdrawn, having uncontrolled anger or prejudice against certain groups of people. Excessive feelings of isolation or an unexplained decrease in performance could also be a sign that a student is troubled and may need help, but not necessary that they are preparing to commit an act of violence, Balentine said.

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