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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

Finding Grace in the Face of Tragedy   

Letter from Pearl

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

Letter from Pearl

Before this fall most people outside Mississippi had probably never heard of a town called Pearl.

Then, on the first of October, 16-year-old Luke Woodham took a rifle to school, witnesses say. The tragedy that unfolded in Pearl High's airy atrium left two teenage girls dead and seven others injured. Police found Woodham's mother butchered in the family home.

A week later, six of Woodham's friends were arrested and charged with conspiracy to kill classmates and teachers. Rumors of a satanic cult and animal sacrifices bubbled around the Jackson suburb of 22,000.

The case drew the media's attention for obvious reasons: big crime in a small town, children murdered where they were supposed to be safe, a mother stabbed to death by her own son.

CNN, "Good Morning America," "Today," CBS' "This Morning," the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time and other news heavies descended upon the town.

I was there, too. A reporter with New Orleans' Times-Picayune, I went to Pearl on Wednesday, October 8, the day after the arrests of Woodham's friends. I returned with a huge respect for the citizens of Pearl. Like most reporters, I have met with resistance, sometimes bordering on hostility, when writing the most innocuous of stories. But the grace with which Pearl residents handled the reportorial invasion was truly extraordinary. Despite their shock and pain, they were open and polite even when they just wanted the me- dia hordes to go away.

The night I arrived, I called the family of one newly arrested suspect at 10 p.m. The boy's father politely referred me to his attorney and even gave me the phone number. My next call was to Pearl High School Principal Roy Balentine's home. After I went through my opening spiel, the man at the other end of the phone identified himself as the principal's brother. I apologized. "Don't worry. It happens all the time," he said. He then gave me his brother's phone number.

"Despite this unprecedented invasion of their town and the trauma, they were extremely civil," says New York Times Atlanta Bureau Chief Kevin Sack.

David Petty, executive editor of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, says our experience wasn't unusual. "That is Mississippi," says Petty. "We're probably one of the most polite and nicest states you'll ever be a part of."

Butch John was one of three Clarion-Ledger reporters who covered the story full time. "People were extraordinarily willing to talk for the first three or four days," John says.

Then came the second round. Some residents soured on the media after a live broadcast of "The Geraldo Rivera Show" from the steps of town hall. The mother of one murder victim walked off the set in tears. The sister of that victim told the cameramen that she didn't want to be filmed. When they didn't comply, she ran off. About 20 reporters chased after her.

On October 9, Superintendent of Schools Bill Dodson ousted TV and print reporters who had been camped out, saying the national media had been "overzealous in questioning students," and that teenagers "were not accustomed to aggressiveness from the media."

Unaware of the media ban, I walked into the building while talking to a student, past police cars and officers and teachers in the center atrium. I listened in on a few conversations before going to the main office to find the principal.

I expected hostility from the secretary. Instead, she said, "Oh, honey, you're not supposed to be here. Let's see if we can find Principal Balentine." She guided me through the halls, stopping to tell a teacher, "This is a reporter. She got lost and ended up in here. We're looking for the principal." Balentine was outside telling another reporter the press was no longer welcome. He, too, greeted me kindly and gave me a brief interview.

People in any small town would have reacted with similar kindness, says reporter Butch John. It just so happened that this tragedy happened in Pearl.