Facebook explodes after report of gunman at Laurel High; school district, police say no students were ever in danger
It appears as if the Facebook-driven furor over reports of a man with a gun on the campus of Laurel High School were grossly exaggerated, even as some parents are protesting at the school and demanding answers as to why they weren’t notified.
“We do not do investigation by Facebook,” a visibly perturbed Laurel police Capt. Tommy Cox said during a Wednesday morning press conference at Laurel Police Department headquarters. He was alongside Laurel schools Superintendent Dr. Toy Watts, who has been on the job slightly more than three months.
On Tuesday shortly before 11 a.m., Laurel High School students reported seeing a man on campus with a gun. The school contacted Laurel police, who sent three cruisers and an investigator to check on the report.
They found 30-year-old Erich Taylor, who lives near the school on 11th Street, walking alongside the street, not on school property. He had been arrested on March 8 after midnight for having a gun on school property and was out on bond for that charge. That arrest also caused a Facebook stir because of the charge, even though there were no students on campus during the incident.
In Tuesday’s incident, the school went on temporary lockdown — something that is common, school officials said — until it was determined that no students were in danger. Upon searching Taylor, no weapon was discovered.
However, during a subsequent search of Taylor’s home, a gun was discovered. Cox said the weapon may have been altered in some way, which could lead to further charges, but as of now, the charges listed on the Jones County Adult Detention Center’s website have Taylor being held for weapon possession on school property and a hold for CIT, which signifies a suspect is undergoing a mental evaluation.
No alert was sent to parents that the school was on lockdown. “During the ongoing investigation, a notification was not sent out to parents due to the need for conclusive and accurate information on the validity of the claim,” the school district wrote in a press release.
District officials said that if they responded to every rumor with a mass-message, they would be sending them all the time.
A Leader-Call reporter who was at the school on a different assignment saw LPD officers driving toward the 11th Street entrance without lights and sirens, then saw Investigator Abraham McKenzie nearing the school.
A voice over the school-wide intercom made two announcements — for the students to stop looking out the windows, followed a short time later by a call that all was clear.
Almost immediately, a Facebook firestorm erupted. Some claimed children were huddled in closets talking to family members via cellphone, while another Facebook user wrote that a big white man with a .357 magnum had been shooting up the school. One claimed a man with a gun was in the school shooting and had “reached the third floor.”
“The school doesn’t have a third floor,” officials said.
“At no time were students at Laurel High School in danger,” the district said in the press release.
Taylor last Saturday shortly sent an unsolicited letter to the Laurel Leader-Call decrying the lack of access to “real” Xanax — an anti-anxiety drug that is prescription only — and that there is a conspiracy to deliver fake Xanax.
“Scam artists are getting more and more creative and now the ability to press your own illegal pharmaceutical tablets is available on the internet,” he wrote. “All one must do is order the pill presses from eBay. This started in Hattiesburg three years ago and now has made its way into Laurel. I haven’t even seen a real Xanax bar in two years. I’ve heard that the fake bars have opiate pain killers in them causing some people to overdose and die. I’ve also heard that they use crude benzos from Mexico so people can’t really tell they are fake.”
The LPD is working with the Mississippi Crisis Intervention Response Team to evaluate Taylor’s condition, Cox said.
District spokeswoman Lacey Walters said the district recently implemented new security protocols for anyone wanting to get into the school. Authorized personnel have badges that can gain entry, but all visitors must be buzzed in. Once inside the building, the visitor has to supply a driver’s license to be scanned and papers to be signed.
The district also employs two full-time resource officers at the high school, one at the middle school and one who floats between the elementary schools, Watts said.
“They are not free to just walk in the building,” Watts said.
Adding an extra layer to the saga is that Jody Keys of Tennessee, who co-owns 2 Brothers’ Protection Agency, LLC, a private security firm, and who is a former Jones County resident, is promising to come to Laurel next week to “provide well trained protection services for all schools in the local area.”
Officials at the press conference scoffed at that offer.
A regularly-scheduled school board meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. today (Thursday) at the Gardiner Building and outspoken parent Tracie Smith is trying to get people to the meeting to voice their concerns.
“Parents want answers,” Smith said during a live Facebook post Wednesday morning. “… I don’t care if the meeting is at 4 o’clock in the morning, I am going to be there with the letter in my hand,” Smith said. “If they were at Helen’s, you’d be there. If they were at the Boom Boom room, you would be there. If they were giving out free chicken, you’d be there.
“If you care about your child, you will be there with your letter.”