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Union Academy Addresses Safety, Retaliation And Employee Screening After Teacher's Death In Shootout

Union Academy Charter School
Union Academy Charter School held a special board meeting Thursday to explain how it’s handling security and background checks.

Union Academy Charter School held a special board meeting Thursday to explain how it’s handling security and background checks after a teacher died in a shootout that law officers say involved a stash-house robbery.

Tuesday evening, the K-12 charter school in Monroe held a memorial for Barney Harris, a highly regarded Spanish teacher, basketball and track coach who died last week.

The next day, school officials heard Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson say in a news conference that Harris had been shot multiple times while trying to rob a stash house associated with a Mexican drug cartel.

"I can tell you right now," Johnson said, "when we are dealing with the Mexican drug cartels, somebody is probably going to die as a result of this right here somewhere else."

Alonso Beltran Lara, allegedly a drug runner who lived at the stash house, according to police, was also fatally shot. Harris’ brother-in-law, Steven Alexander Stewart Jr. of Wadesboro, has been charged with first-degree murder and first-degree burglary.

After hearing all that, the Union Academy board held a 15-minute special meeting Thursday night to address concerns. Head of School John Marshall said he and his staff quickly shifted from mourning to protecting students and staff.

John Marshall, Union Academy head of school.
Union Academy
John Marshall, Union Academy head of school.

"The school administration has searched Mr. Harris’ classroom and we did not find any evidence of drugs or weapons," Marshall said. "We have also cleared Mr. Harris’ work spaces."

The school brought in extra police and consulted with local law officials about whether their school could be a target of retaliation.

Lt. Kris Westover of the Monroe police said he had spoken with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office that morning.

"They assured us ... that Union Academy is not a threat for any type of retaliation," Westover said.

Marshall said Union Academy does a check of federal, state and local criminal records before hiring employees, then uses a scanning system called Guardian to alert administrators if new offenses turn up in North Carolina.

"Union Academy was alerted last fall when Mr. Harris received a misdemeanor for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit," he said. "The administration addressed this matter with Mr. Harris at the time of this incident."

Marshall didn’t elaborate on how it was addressed.

A WFAE background check showed Harris had an April 20 court date in New Hanover County on that charge. It also revealed Harris was charged with having a plastic container with marijuana residue and ashes in his vehicle in Oklahoma last September. He was ticketed and paid a $239 fine, records show.

On Friday Union Academy sent WFAE a statement acknowledging the Oklahoma citation.

"It is important to note that the alert system we use only searches North Carolina records, and Union Academy was not aware of this charge," said the statement from communications director Jennifer Sutton Smith. "We are currently reviewing and updating our background check and response policies and processes to determine whether changes are needed."

Marshall said the reports about the circumstances of Harris’ death stunned his students and colleagues. Basketball and track athletes Harris coached are being offered counseling, he said.

"The Barney Harris that so many here knew and loved was a very different person than the man we heard about in recent news reports," Marshall said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is working with the Alamance sheriff’s office to investigate the shootout. The DEA declined to discuss the case, but spokeswoman Crystal Harper said Atlanta is a primary hub for Mexican cartel activity and Charlotte is a secondary hub. She said “cartel-related activity” spills over into the rest of the Piedmont area.

David Boraks and Sarah Delia contributed to this story.

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Updated: April 16, 2021 at 3:58 PM EDT
Updated April 16 with a statement from Union Academy.
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.