When Collinswood Language Academy students came home upset by their principal's comments at an anti-gun walkout event Friday, several parents suggested they might be overreacting.
Then a 90-second video shot by a student made the rounds. It shows Principal Jennifer Pearsall talking about how much she loves to shoot clay pigeons.
"I'm a sharpshooter. I am right eyed and left handed," Pearsall says, cocking her left thumb and forefinger in a gun gesture. When a voice from the audience asks if she shoots with a gun or a bow and arrow, Pearsall replies, "A rifle. Bam, bam, bam! Shootin' clays. I love it."
Student organizers say Pearsall interrupted a guest speaker to riff on gun culture, describing how when she was in school young hunters drove up with their rifles openly displayed.
"And it wasn't a problem. And we weren't worried about the safety," Pearsall says in the video. "They were out doing their sport that their daddies had done and their granddaddies had done and their great-granddaddies had done on the land that they grew up on. We don't want to change that. That is American culture."
Collinswood, a K-8 Spanish-English magnet school in south Charlotte, was among several schools in the Charlotte region where students worked with administrators to participate in the National School Walkout, held on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. It was one of three student-led mass events held in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High to demand safer schools and call for gun restrictions that might avert attacks.
Sydnee Fryer, a 14-year-old organizer of the event, said Pearsall was supportive and enthusiastic. But she and her classmates were "a little bit weirded out" by Pearsall's remarks on gun culture.
"I thought it was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen," Sydnee said Monday.
Maxwell Campbell, another Collinswood student who helped with the event, said students laughed nervously when Pearsall started talking, unsure whether she was joking or serious. He said he considered the interruption "irrelevant and kind of rude."
After parents sent the video to the superintendent's office Monday, Pearsall's supervisor, Nancy Brightwell, sent a message to Collinswood families saying that "appropriate actions have and will be taken to address concerns regarding this incident." The message said that an administrator "interjected comments that detracted from the students' event and took focus away from the event's intended purpose."
Pearsall did not respond to an Observer call seeking comment Monday.
Two parents said some adults were initially skeptical of the students' description, but were taken aback when they saw the video.
"It doesn't seem normal," said Jenna Fryer, Sydnee's mother. She said she sent it to central offices after hearing from concerned parents over the weekend. She wasn't sure what she hoped would happen, but "if anything, an explanation is owed."
This was the second walkout related to school violence and gun violence that Collinswood students had organized, with support from school administrators.
Sydnee Fryer said Monday evening she hadn't heard from the principal. Her biggest concern, she said, is that everyone was so distracted by the principal's behavior that it overshadowed the main message: Collinswood students want safer schools.