The Oakland Elementary school shooting of 1988 was the subject of a special program on Tuesday, January 16, at Lander University.
Retired schoolteacher Palsy Higginbotham spoke publicly for the first time about the day that 19-year-old Jamie Wilson walked into her classroom and shot six of her children, killing two.
Other speakers at the event, held in the Josephine B. Abney Cultural Center Auditorium, included Josh Sims, a student who survived the incident, and former South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Jim Moore, who presided over the case while serving as a judge for the Eighth Judicial Circuit.
Wilson, who began by opening fire in the school cafeteria, was indicted for two counts of murder, nine counts of assault and battery with intent to kill, and one count of carrying a firearm. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to death for the two murders and 175 years on the other charges. He remains on death row.
In the days following the shooting, Higginbotham said she did everything she could to make her students feel safe, but it wasn’t easy. “If anybody came into my room, they would get upset,” she said.
She said that those killed, eight-year-old Tequila Thomas and eight-year-old Shequila Bradley, “were precious, both of them. I missed those girls the rest of the school year.”
Sitting near Jamie Wilson in court “was hard,” she said. “I never understood, even though he had problems, how he could do that.”
For a long time after the shooting, Sims, an engineer for Greenwood Fabricating and Plating, said he was “abnormally afraid of the dark.” Even today, he said, “when I go in a room, I look for the exits.”
He noted that when Wilson arrived at Oakland Elementary to begin his killing spree, “all the doors were unlocked. You could come and go. After that day, there were a lot of changes,” he said.
Sims said that what he and his classmates went through that day “makes me really appreciate every day that I have here.”
Moore characterized the high number of mass shootings in the U.S. as “tragic and astonishing.” One reason for it, he said, is the “easy access to guns.”
He doesn’t buy the argument that Wilson was insane. “He knew the difference between right and wrong,” he said.
Moore said that the shooting and Tuesday night’s program “show that we must always be aware, prepared and vigilant.”
Following the remarks by Higginbotham, Sims and Moore, Lieutenant Dena Gossett and Sergeant James Burke of the Lander University Police Department offered advice about how to survive a shooting like the one at Oakland Elementary.
Leaving the area as soon as possible, by any means possible, is the best thing to do, Gossett said. Denying the shooter access, for instance by barricading a door, is the next best option. If all else fails, those in harm’s way should actively defend themselves, using any means available to them.
“Hiding and hoping are not effective survival strategies,” Gossett said. “If you are seen, you will be shot.”
The average response time for police to arrive on the scene of a shooting is three minutes, Burke said, and what people do during that time often determines whether they live or die.
“Buy yourself three minutes for law enforcement to get there,” he said.