America’s nightmare reached Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Monday morning, as a fight between two students at suburban Butler High turned into a fatal shooting.
The clash in a hallway outside the school cafeteria left 16-year-old sophomore Bobby McKeithen dead and 16-year-old freshman Jatwan Craig Cuffie charged with first-degree murder.
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said it “began with bullying that escalated out of control, and as fear took over a young person brought a gun to solve the problem.” He would not elaborate on the alleged bullying, but said investigators have found no evidence that Cuffie and McKeithen “had anything in common in terms of a beef that went on ... at school.”
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The Matthews high school, like counterparts across the country, has seen a surge of student activism, active shooter drills and intensified school safety procedures since a February mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla. As soon as word about the Butler shooting leaked out by text messages and social media, frightened parents mobbed the school, even as CMS tried to lock down the campus for emergency workers and police investigators.
According to an Education Week tally, it was the 22nd school shooting that resulted in death or injury in 2018.
Matthews Police Capt. Stason Tyrrell said a fight broke out in a hall near the school cafeteria around 7:15 a.m., as classes were about to start. Many students “witnessed this tragedy” and were rushed into the nearest classrooms, Wilcox said, but no one else was injured.
A school resource officer was nearby, and officials were able to aid the injured student and radio for help within the first minute of the shooting, Tyrrell said.
For almost 10 minutes, as officers converged, Tyrrell said no one was sure where the shooter was or whether there was more than one armed person. Then a Butler teacher let officers know she was with the young man who admitted to the shooting and was ready to surrender, Tyrrell said.
McKeithen was taken to Carolinas Medical Center, police said, where he died.
Classmates described McKeithen as a good friend who loved basketball and the video game Fortnite.
“He was really funny, like, when I would have problems with something at school or something at home, he always helped me,” said 10th-grader Gabby Kaminsky, who called McKeithen a best friend. “He wanted to graduate early, I know he talked to me about that before.”
“He never gave up on you or your friendship with him, no matter if things got rough,” said 10th-grader Tiana Scrofani.
Wilcox said school officials were not sure how the suspect was able to get a gun into the school, but noted that not all bags brought onto campus are “actively” searched by the staff and that CMS does not use metal detectors.
“We’ve worked really hard on school security the last six or seven months,” Wilcox said. “We are going to review all our procedures, we are going to review our security plans and perhaps will do things that are a little more aggressive.”
The school, which has about 2,100 students, stayed on lockdown for the first 90-minute period, according to students and parents.
“My teacher made us put desks in front of the door and shut the lights, and they were saying: ‘This is not a drill’ ... so everyone in my classroom was really scared,” said Kaminsky, the 10th-grader. “I had texted my mom. A lot of people were on their phones, and the teachers wouldn’t let anybody leave..”
About an hour after the incident, the district announced that there had been a shooting and parents were being notified by phone calls. At that time, CMS said no one would be allowed on campus “until the lockdown has been lifted by law enforcement.”
But parents were already streaming toward the school.
WSOC reported that angry parents were gathering around the campus, despite being told they were to wait for updates at nearby Elevation Church on East Independence Boulevard. Even before CMS began letting parents sign their students out, some students were leaving.
“We made him sneak out the back door,” Scott Simpson said as he walked off campus with his ninth-grade son, Brody. Simpson said he was dismayed that Butler stayed open and asked students to go to their second-period classes. “They’re changing classes during an active crime scene,” he said.
At a Monday afternoon news conference, Wilcox defended that decision, saying it would have been a mistake to dismiss students before transportation with their families could be lined up. “What would they have said to us if they would have come to school and we couldn’t locate their children? I think their fear would have been magnified,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox praised Butler students and staff for the way they reacted, saying that students remained calm and orderly because “they understood that panic in a difficult situation would only lead to more confusion.”
Butler will not have classes Tuesday to give students and teachers a chance to process what happened, Wilcox said Monday afternoon. Wednesday is a scheduled teacher workday, Wilcox said, and staff will be able to come to Butler if they want.
CMS officials posted on Facebook that counseling is being made available for students and staff. “The Butler High School community and CMS appreciate the support of the entire community during this difficult time,” said the post.
The shooting brought statements of support and sympathy from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Superintendent Mark Johnson, both of whom said they had contacted local officials and offered support.
“As we get more information it is critical that we come together to do everything in our power to prevent these incidents from happening and keep guns out of our schools,” Cooper stated.
The Matthews death comes amid a grim drumbeat of students dying in school gunfire.
Education Week has tallied 22 school shootings in 2018 that have resulted in 35 deaths and 77 injuries. Students accounted for 28 of the deaths. That tally includes a domestic dispute between adults in a school parking lot, a handful of shootings at football games and an incident in which a teacher accidentally fired a gun during a gun safety lesson.
It also includes highly publicized mass shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas.
The North Carolina House created a select committee on school safety earlier this year. It has been holding meetings around the state this month.
Wilcox, who became superintendent in July 2017, inherited a district that traditionally leads North Carolina in the number of guns confiscated on school grounds — almost always without shots being fired.
The last time a student was shot in a CMS school appears to be in 2003, when a student brought a loaded gun to East Mecklenburg High and a student sustained minor injuries when the gun went off accidentally, according to Observer reports at the time.
In February, when Wilcox was reacting to a report that showed guns at CMS had reached a 10-year high in the previous school year, he said the saving grace was that students tended to let adults know if a classmate brought a gun, averting violence.
He noted that reliance on cooperation at Monday afternoon’s briefing.
“Today,” Wilcox said, “that simply wasn’t enough.”
Gavin Off, Cassie Cope and Theoden Janes contributed to this story.
Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms