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'Are we safe?' Educators and parents face ripples from Texas school shooting

Iredell-Statesville Superintendent Jeff James (left) and Iredell County Sheriff Darren Campbell made a video Wednesday to talk to parents about school safety after a mass school shooting in Texas.
@IredellStatesvilleSchools Facebook page
Iredell-Statesville Superintendent Jeff James (left) and Iredell County Sheriff Darren Campbell made a video Wednesday to talk to parents about school safety after a mass school shooting in Texas.

Tuesday’s mass shooting in a Texas elementary school continues to ripple through the Charlotte region. Here are some of the stories of educators and parents wrestling with fear, frustration, anxiety and hope.

A superintendent: Sleepless nights

Superintendent Jeff James says he loses sleep every week over the thought of a shooting in Iredell-Statesville Schools. When the news broke Tuesday that the latest mass shooting happened in a small Texas town, that only intensified.

"There’s been at least 50 conversations today around, 'Are we safe? Are we as safe as we could be?' " he said Wednesday.

He quickly got together with Iredell County Sheriff Darren Campbell to create a video for parents talking about school safety.

Of course, this isn’t the nation’s first school shooting. Iredell-Statesville Schools, like districts across America, has been doing a lot in recent years to guard against armed attackers. There are police officers and sheriff’s deputies in every school. School entrances have been secured, with Rhino locks added to each classroom door. There are video cameras that feed straight to the sheriff’s office and what James calls “ballistic shields.”

"So that is a way to help pen in a perpetrator, because they are bulletproof," he said, declining to offer detail that could help anyone avoid them.

James calls himself a conservative Republican. But he says something he admits isn’t popular with some like-minded people: Supporting students’ mental health is just as important as all the physical barriers. He wishes the Republican-dominated General Assembly would tap the state’s surplus to pay for a lot more support staff.

"And if I had a blank check I’d put a nurse in every school, a social worker in every school and there would be a counselor for about every 200, 225 kids," he said. Current levels, around 400 to 500 students per counselor, make it impossible to form personal bonds, he said.

James says since COVID-19 disrupted schools and lives, he’s seen behavior deteriorate among students and adults, including people who come to school board meetings.

"It just seems the pandemic took some underlying social issues and just exponentially made them worse," James said.

A teacher: I don't want a gun

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has also been making changes to keep schools safer. This year many of them have focused on deterring students from bringing guns into schools, but the district has also fortified buildings, restricted access and worked with law enforcement to prepare worst-case strategies.

Sandra Meyer teaches Spanish at South Mecklenburg High School, a huge school with several buildings next to a busy road.

Students file out of South Mecklenburg High School during a recent dismissal.
Ann Doss Helms
Students file out of South Mecklenburg High School during a recent dismissal.

She says some of the changes have made her feel a bit safer, but "when you have an open school with several buildings, it’s just about impossible to control everyone who enters the school, whether our students or just strangers."

Meyer says one of this year’s best changes has been the addition of the Say Something anonymous reporting program. The Texas shooter was 18, the age of some of her students. She says she found herself wondering "What did we miss? As a society, what happened that nobody identified that this kid was harboring those feelings of murder."

Meyer says she’s heard talk that teachers should be armed and trained to defend themselves and their students. "But the reality is I don’t want to carry a gun," she said. "I don’t want to get any training. I just don’t want any shootings to happen in our country."

Meyer says it saddens her to hear students talking as if it’s inevitable that a mass school shooting will eventually happen close to home. Her message to them?

"Be hopeful and talk," Meyer said. "Talk about it. Share your thoughts. Share your feelings. Get help. Give help. It’s not all lost. This is a learning opportunity and we should all do something  to make things better." 

A parent: Maybe it can change

In Huntersville, the fear struck earlier this school year, when two guns were found after a fight at Hopewell High. Ashley Wiley was one of the mothers who helped convene a town hall meetingwhere parents demanded that CMS improve safety.

She says the community felt as if "we were running out of time before a shot was going to be fired in that school. And we had to do something to prevent it."

When scanners show a red box over a bag, the student goes to a nearby table to have that bag searched.
Ann Doss Helms
Hopewell students walk through a body scanner installed this spring.

Not only did CMS respond with body scanners and other measures, butHopewell parents rallied to patrol halls and help students cope with their feelings. It felt like the year was ending on a high note. But Wednesday, Wiley had to tell her young children that students their age had been shot and killed at school in Texas.

"And they agreed they hoped that those moms and dads that dropped their children off at school got a hug from their child and they hoped that they’ll always remember that their child loved them," she said. "And that’s coming from a 9- and a 10-year-old."

Wednesday Wiley created a Let’s Make CMS Safe Again Facebook group, hoping to share some of the strategies that rallied families to support Hopewell High.

A preschool director: Welcome amid fear

Banu Valladares, director of Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, has also beefed up security and practiced sheltering from an attacker.

"I have to tell you," she said, "the first time that I did an active shooter drill I cried."

Banu Valladares
Ann Doss Helms
Banu Valladares

She says many of her preschool families fled countries torn by war and terrorism. "This would have reignited their fear that we don’t live in a safe place," she said.

Valladares says it’s not just refugee and immigrant families who are traumatized, but anyone who has experienced loss and violence.

Wednesday Valladares struggled to find the words to craft a letter to her families. Her most important message, she says, isn’t about the barriers to intruders but about the love they and their children will find inside.

"We’ve got to keep on creating spaces where hope thrives, where families feel safe, where families are welcome," she said.

She hopes the horror of yet another school massacre somehow brings people together.

"How, as a community, do we hold hands to say, ‘We got each other’? That’s, I think, the biggest piece, is to figure out how do we remember that we belong to each other and that all children are ours," she said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.