“That was my first school threat,” Xavier said nonchalantly, as if to be a freshman in an American high school in 2021 meant one should expect gun violence or the threat of such to rear its head at some point. For him, it took just over two weeks.
A freshman at North Mecklenburg High School, Xavier, whose name has been changed for anonymity, first noticed something wrong when he got to school on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 9. Upon arriving at the Huntersville campus, he approached the bus lot, where he looked for a friend that he often walks to class with. The friend was held up by the fact that police appeared to be searching everyone coming off the buses.
Xavier found that strange, but couldn’t sit around to ponder it or wait for his friend much longer, as he had to get to English. It was there that a classmate immediately asked if he had heard about the gun threat. She told him rumors and threats of gun violence on campus at North Mecklenburg and some other high schools had been spreading around social media throughout the night and into the morning.
Xavier said he hadn’t been on social media much during the night, but he checked Instagram Stories and found some of the posts his classmate was referring to. The posts tied the threats of school violence to shootings that had occurred in Charlotte over the previous 48 hours, including a drive-by shooting that took the life of 3-year-old Asiah Figueroa and the murder of an 18-year-old Johnny Scott in west Charlotte on Wednesday.
Police believe those incidents and others, including the murder of 16-year-old Jaylen Foster in north Charlotte on Sunday, stemmed from beefs between high school students that escalated over social media.
CMPD confirmed that it had increased police presence at North Mecklenburg and three other high schools — Hopewell, Julius Chambers and West Mecklenburg — on Thursday due to the online threats.
“CMPD continues to monitor and evaluate messages on social media including ones that involve school safety in our jurisdiction,” the department wrote in a statement posted just before 11 a.m. on Thursday. “We are aware of social media post[s] regarding recent shootings and homicides that have happened. We continue to assess the situation, work with our SROs and will allocate our resources as necessary to facilitate a safe learning environment for students in our jurisdiction.”
Parents react to threat of gun violence
Xavier wasn’t familiar with any of the details related to the violence that occurred earlier in the week; all he knew was that his fellow students were concerned for their own safety.
“I wouldn’t say it was nerve-wracking, but it felt like an out-of-body experience,” he told Queen City Nerve. “We didn’t really know if something was going to happen or not.”
As his teacher entered the room Thursday morning, Xavier noticed that only about a dozen of the 20 students in his class were there. As the final bell rang, his teacher immediately acknowledged the situation that seemed to be front-of-mind for all her students.
She told them they could take their phones out of the bin they had placed them in, a new policy implemented earlier in the week, so that their parents could contact them if they heard news reports about a threat to the school. She told the class they wouldn’t be leaving the room for any unnecessary reasons, and if a student needed to use the restroom they would need to be escorted.
“There were some students who were a little nervous, and the teacher also seemed nervous. I wasn’t really too worried, but it was definitely something that I wasn’t used to,” Xavier recalled. “I wasn’t really scared or anything, but it was more of, what do I do if something like this happens? I have no idea what to do. I’m not going to go out and try to disarm this person. It was more of a numb feeling … What if a person with a gun just walks into the classroom and pops me first?”
He texted his mom to let her know he was alright, then his father, who came to pick him up. Xavier said he had already noticed a large police presence at the school while walking to his first class, but walking to the office to meet his father, who waited nearly 40 minutes in a line of other parents on the same mission, it became all the more clear.
“There was at least one officer around every corner outside,” he said. “On the way out there were a bunch of people sitting there [waiting for rides] … The whole atmosphere, it seemed — it’s kind of unexplainable — maybe grim, maybe grim would be the right word.”
Calls for gun control in Raleigh
At 9 a.m. on Thursday, while Xavier was in class contemplating his next move, a group of lawmakers in Raleigh were holding a press conference in response to incidents of gun violence and threats that have already occurred in North Carolina schools during the first two weeks of the school year.
While there have been multiple incidents involving guns found at schools across the state, including in Mecklenburg County during the first week of school, things came to a head on Sept. 1, when 15-year-old William Chavis Reynard Miller Jr. was shot and killed at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem.
The state representatives gathered Thursday morning to announce a discharge petition for two gun safety bills that have been stuck in committee, which sponsors say should be brought out for debate and consideration in light of the recent threats to student safety statewide.
“A discharge petition is the only way that a member of the minority can try to get a bill out of committee and put on the floor for a debate and consideration,” said Democratic N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey, “because once again we have filed gun control legislation that has been put in committee and is never brought to the light of day.”
Morey is the lead sponsor of House Bill 525, known as the Extreme Risk Protection Orders Act, which would allow concerned citizens or law enforcement to seek orders temporarily restricting gun access to someone exhibiting threatening, violent behavior. N.C. Rep. John Autry of Charlotte is also a sponsor of the bill.
“What this is saying is, ‘Let’s adopt in North Carolina what at least 20 other states have put in,’” Morey said, referencing similar extreme-risk protection legislation across the country. “I was a judge, and many times on the stand I would hear someone say, ‘I knew this was going to happen. There were red flags, there were threatening behaviors, I knew this was going to happen.’”
Unsure of next steps
N.C. Rep. Julie von Haefen, lead sponsor of House Bill 623, which would require someone to have a permit to purchase a long gun in North Carolina, also spoke on Thursday. She pointed out that 631 people were killed by guns in North Carolina in 2020, a 31% increase from the previous year.
“These are not just numbers,” von Haefen said. “Every person that those numbers represent is a victim. They are our neighbors and our friends. Somebody’s mother. Somebody’s child. Somebody’s sibling. We have to remember that and center that as we discuss our next steps.”
She said two guns had been confiscated at her son’s Raleigh high school over the past week.
“Teachers and students have a lot to be worried about and fearful about right now,” she continued. “We can take a closer look at common sense changes to our gun laws, we can increase funding for services such as community violence intervention programs and school support personnel to help reach students before this violence occurs. If we wanted, we could take measurable steps right now to help make the classroom a safer place.”
She added that, because the legislature did not go into session Thursday, she and her colleagues were forced to wait until next Wednesday to file their discharge petition.
“That’s one more week that we’re refusing to do anything,” von Haefen said. “That’s one more week of inaction.”
Back in Charlotte, Xavier continued to think over whether he would attend school on Friday. He had heard that the online threats were about Thursday and Friday.
During a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston called on parents to ensure their children are checking their sources of such information.
“Please understand that information they receive from social and their friends may not always be accurate,” Winston said. “The point I want to make is please trust your school administrators who will make the best decisions to keep your child safe. They will communicate accurate information when they have it.”
Though CMPD said officers will continue to have an increased presence at the four schools in question through the end of the week, many of Xavier’s friends had already decided to stay home.
“I don’t want to go there and that’s the day the shooter wanted to show up,” he told Queen City Nerve. “I’m debating … I’m going to be thinking what’s the best idea. I finished what I was doing [in class on Thursday] at home, but I’m worried about my grades.”
And such are the concerns of an American high school student in 2021.