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North Carolina School Shooting Spotlights Importance of Family Reunification Plans

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A sophomore boy was shot and killed by a classmate in a crowded hallway at a North Carolina high school Monday morning.

The alleged shooter, a freshman boy, has been charged with first degree murder, authorities said.

The boy's death marks the 35th this year in a shooting on a school campus during class hours or during a school activity, according to Education Week's school shooting tracker.

Early reports suggest the suspect brought a gun to Butler High School in Matthews, N.C., after several days of escalating bullying between the two boys, both 16, officials with the Charlotte Mecklenburg district said in an afternoon news conference.

"As fear took over, a young person brought a gun to help resolve the problems," Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said. Police said it was unclear where the student got the gun or how he brought it into the school, which does not use metal detectors.

The incident sparked many questions: What changes can the district make to keep guns out of its buildings? Can schools make any changes to ensure students report concerns about issues like bullying? And, after crises like shootings and natural disasters are resolved, are schools prepared to handle all of the logistical hurdles that come next?

Reuniting students with parents

The gun was secured and the student was quickly taken into police custody after confessing to a teacher, who contacted a school resource officer, officials said. But it took hours to reunite some students with their anxious parents as frustration grew at a nearby church designated as a reunification site.

The district also faced criticism online, including from survivors of past school shootings, after it announced that classes would resume for the rest of the day after the shooting.

At the afternoon news conference, Wilcox said school only continued for students who could not safely be reunited with their families. The remaining students were directed to report to their second period classes as part of the district's process of making sure everyone was accounted for before they released them to their parents. Only about 100 of 2,200 total students stayed until normal dismissal time, he said.

The school wanted "to keep our students safe until transportation could be arranged to get students back to their families," Wilcox said. "The plan that we had in place when an active shooter was on campus was effectuated and it was effective."

Students who had been gathered in the school's hallways quickly ran into classrooms at the sound of the gunfire  and completed the lockdown procedures they'd been drilled in, Wilcox said. 

After the situation was deemed safe, a small number of anxious students pushed their way out of the school and walked to a nearby church that had been designated as a family reunification site, he said. Parents at that church who didn't see their children among the crowd grew concerned and opted to walk about a half mile to the school on their own. The scene was captured by local news crews.

Misinformation also spread on social media, complicating the situation, Wilcox said. Students also used cell phones to reassure their parents that they were ok.

"There was an information lull as we were trying to put things together and I think the parents just became frustrated," he said. "I understand, absolutely."

Wilcox said he plans to to meet with principals of all of the district's schools to determine how reunification plans can be improved. The district will "go back to square one to see how we can do a better and more effective job of communicating with parents," he said.

Complaints about family reunification are not unusual after school crises, like shootings. The circumstances are unpredictable, and it can take school officials time to ensure that circumstances are safe and to set up impromptou procedures to release students.

Wilcox also plans to re-evaluate the district's security procedures. The investigation, which is in its early stages, will help inform how the district responds, he said. The district limits access to its school buildings, but Butler High School does not have metal detectors or universal bag searches. Such procedures may not be practical or feasible at every school entrance, he said.

Here are some resources about incorporating reunification into crisis plans:

Photo: Parents pick up their children outside Butler High School after the scene was considered safe in Matthews, N.C., on Oct. 29. A student shot and killed a fellow student during a fight in a crowded school hallway Monday, officials said. --Joshua Komer/The Charlotte Observer via AP


Related reading on school safety:

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