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School Violence Through The Eyes Of A Charlotte Pioneer In Prevention Efforts

Gary Weart, co-founder of Students Against Violence Everywhere.
Mark Rumsey

This week’s deadly shooting at Butler High School in Matthews stunned students, staff, and parents, and the impact has rippled through the community.  Nearly 30 years ago, Charlotteans were shocked by the shooting death of another student – West Charlotte High School Junior Alex Orange. His death gave birth to a student-led anti-violence movement that lives on today.  

In 1989, 17-year old Alex Orange was in history teacher and coach Gary Weart’s home room at West Charlotte High School. "He sat right in front of my desk," recalls Weart. The now-retired teacher remembers the teenager's size (about 6'2", 205 lbs.), athletic abilities, and - something else. "He always had a smile on his face," said Weart during a conversation Thursday at the WFAE studios. 

In late April of that year, a large group of West Charlotte students gathered on a Friday night, off-campus, for a party billed as a “Stop the Violence Jam.”  Before the night was over, violence tragically struck at the event. Alex Orange was fatally shot in the chest after, according to witnesses, students from another school showed up. 

At her son’s graveside, Dawn Orange, made a vow. "This right here will not happen no more in Charlotte, a useless death like this." The murdered teen's mother added, "the young people are going to band together for peace."

In the weeks after their classmate was killed, a group of West Charlotte students also vowed that something must be done to prevent such violence. They formed Students Against Violence Everywhere.  SAVE chapters began forming at schools across the nation and eventually spread overseas.  Last year, SAVE combined its efforts with those of another anti-violence group, Sandy Hook Promise, formed after the December 2012 elementary school mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. 

Gary Weart helped West Charlotte students launch the first SAVE chapter, and has stayed involved with the movement ever since.  He’s retired and lives in Charleston now. Weart spoke with WFAE's Mark Rumsey, describing first his response when he learned of Monday's fatal shooting of 16-year old Bobby McKeithen at Butler High School.

Gary Weart:  My heart sank. It opens up old wounds. It brings back some really sad memories. And there's been too much of that over the past 30 years. 

Mark Rumsey: Did your mind go back to 1989 and Alex Orange? 

Weart:  Mark, my mind goes back to Alex Orange every day. It totally changed my life. I tell people that I was blessed with a burden and some wonderful things have happened because of this organization. But sadly there's still a need for it. And it is a burden. And to lose 14 kids and a 42-year career to violence is 14 too many. In 1975 I lost my first student. When Alex Orange was killed I was in my 15th year of teaching and he was my eighth student that I had to attend a funeral.

Rumsey: From your perspective, what changed after Alex Orange was killed?

Credit SAVE / nationalsave.org
Alex Orange, who was fatally shot

Weart:  I think the young people were constantly being shown as a problem in our society. You turn on the news and it's always about the shootings and the killings and the fights and all that stuff. And these young people had a message, a positive message. We went to other elementary schools and middle schools and we tried to role play - you know the idea of conflict management. We used to say conflict resolution, but that's not reality. But we can agree to disagree and respect one another. We can compromise .

You know, the bullying has always been an issue but it's gotten to be an even bigger issue today with the technology and the cyber bullying and the Snapchat and all the stuff that kids can do with the technology today. And they find out stuff instantly, and that's totally changed what we had in 1989, to what's going on in 2018. We've had to address some of those issues and our curriculum has had to change with the times. 

Rumsey: A key emphasis of SAVE has always been student empowerment. What does it mean for students to be empowered to help prevent violence? What does student empowerment look like?

Weart: Well, I think young people take a proactive leadership role in their schools, in their communities, and they're given a voice. Whether it's through actions of community service, whether it's learning to let administrators know of a child on the campus that's being bullied - I think that's really critical.

With the Sandy Hook Promise, we have a thing that's called, 'starts with hello.'  If anybody is eating by themself in the cafeteria, the young people should, rather than say, 'Well, what's wrong with that person?' - they should go over and sit down next to them and say, "hey," and you know, introduce yourself.

Rumsey: On some of the broader policy issues that are being examined around the country and school districts and communities right now, does the approach to school security and campus security need to change - and if so, how?

Weart: I think we're on the right track with that.  School should be a safe place, it should be a place of learning. And the school resource officer -  you know, we used to think, "wow, there's a police car in front of this school that's not a good thing." No, that's a very good thing. That means that there is security there and you can't prevent everything that's going to happen. You know, you're going to have to take a proactive leadership role and you've got to get everybody involved. 

Rumsey: Looking back now at how the organization SAVE got started at West Charlotte and all that you have seen and experienced - have the efforts that you've been involved with in this regard been worth it? 

Weart: I always say that if we saved one life, it's been worth it. And I'm sure 30 years later we've saved more than one life. And I think that speaks volumes. But that was the whole idea. We don't want the next young person to die if it can be prevented. 

Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.