Crime & Courts

Albemarle police chief: Call of ‘shots fired at school’ is worst nightmare

Candi Childers had just walked into Albemarle High School on Tuesday to drop off the poster board her son had left at home when she heard a loud bang.

Then she heard sirens. She began worrying about her ninth-grade son, Alex, and his older brother Justin, a sophomore at the school.

A school secretary told her to stand still and not make any sudden movements. When Childers looked up, “the only thing I saw were police. The cops were flying in there.”

A 16-year-old Albemarle High School student was shot and wounded about 7:40 a.m. by another student during an argument in front of the school, Albemarle police said. The victim was struck twice and hospitalized in stable condition. No other injuries were reported.

The suspected shooter, a juvenile, turned himself in moments after the shooting and will be charged with assault with a deadly weapon, according to Albemarle police Chief William Halliburton.

Classes resumed at the Stanly County school Wednesday morning.

Stanly County Schools Supt. Terry Griffin and Albemarle High Principal Jessie Morton held a brief news conference in front of the school – about 50 yards from the scene of the shooting – and said they would begin the process of returning life to normal at the campus.

“This incident will not define us,” said Morton, flanked by much of the school’s staff. “It will merely strengthen us. What happened on our campus yesterday morning was a tragic but isolated incident.”

Griffin said, “Ms. Morton and her staff are all heroes.”

It was one of two school shootings in the United States on Tuesday. At 1 p.m., a student in Louisville, Ky., was wounded in a shooting inside Fern Creek High School. The alleged shooter was arrested hours later.

Both incidents left communities searching for answers to the violence and offering prayers of thanks that no one was dead.

“What could have happened, we’ve seen across the country, we escaped that,” Halliburton said. “... He could have done more, so the reaction is that we’re thankful that he gave himself up.”

In Albemarle, the call to police came in about 7:42 a.m.

“When you hear ‘shots fired at a school,’ ” Halliburton said, “that’s your worst nightmare.”

The violence took place in a courtyard in front of the school, a short time after the doors had opened at Albemarle High. The school has about 470 students and is in the downtown district of Stanly County’s largest city, located about an hour east of Charlotte. Students were arriving for the day when the argument began. Police later said they were investigating reports that the two students had been involved in a previous altercation.

“There is nothing to indicate that anything that happened in advance might have alerted us to what would happen this morning,” Griffin said.

A school resource officer, Elbert Branch, heard the gunfire and rushed to the scene. Halliburton said Branch tended to the victim, then went into the school. He found the suspect in the principal’s office and took him into custody.

Meanwhile, someone on the school staff pressed a “panic button” that had been installed over the summer in case of outbreaks of violence.

“We had 20 officers there within minutes,” Halliburton said. “We had the suspect in custody immediately. But we did a sweep of the entire school while it was in lockdown.”

Childers says she believes she was the only parent in the school when the shooting occurred. She had reached the door of the school office when she head a loud bang “and this craziness started going on.”

She said she was taken to the office of the school resource officer so the suspect could be led out.

Childers said she told the officer, “I don’t want to know everything, but where are my children? Please tell me they’re OK.”

Parents were asked by police and school officials to stay away from the school and instead go to the North Albemarle Baptist Church, about a block east of the school.

As the students began to move off campus just after 9 a.m., pastor Bill Baldwin’s phone buzzed in his pocket. The leader of Harvest Church in Albemarle had been meeting with local ministers at a church down the road from the high school. A teacher at the school was calling to ask whether Baldwin could please come to campus to help calm the nerves of the rattled teachers and administrators.

“You always think you’re ready for something like this,” Baldwin recalled the teacher saying. But when the call came to lock down the school, the teacher said his hands shook so badly he struggled to fit the key in the door.

The last student left the campus by 9:06 a.m.

Meanwhile, wishes for the welfare of the students began showing up on Twitter under the hashtag # prayersforAlbemarle. Rumors and speculation as to what prompted the shooting quickly saturated the small town.

At a 1 p.m. news conference, Griffin, the schools superintendent, said she had no record of a weapon being brought on school grounds this year before this incident.

According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Albemarle High had four incidents of possession of a weapon in recent years. One report came during the 2012-13 school year. Three came in 2009-10.

During the Wednesday morning news conference, Griffin said increased security is on the Albemarle High campus, and additional counselors will be available to meet with students and staff.

“What’s most important for the people of Stanly County to know is that our campuses are safe,” Griffin said.

On Tuesday, Halliburton said the department is reviewing video from school surveillance cameras. He withheld the name of the alleged shooter because he is a juvenile.

Halliburton said Albemarle police, the Stanly County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement and emergency medical organizations held a large-scale school shooting simulation drill in July to prepare for such an event.

“You’re never really prepared for this kind of situation, but I commend our staff and the quick response by police,” Griffin said.

Childers said she was inside the school for an hour before the lockdown ended and she was reunited with her sons.

“I felt so sad sitting there,” she told the Observer several hours after the incident. “I was praying, trying to keep my composure, and this boy is throwing his life away.”

Childers said she is grappling with the decision on when Justin and Alex will return to classes.

“I’m thinking I’ll let them go if school reopens Wednesday,” she said. “But I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t think anything will happen tomorrow, but who knows in a week or two or a month.

“Kids bring things to school. Kids all the time have things they should not have. I’m so scared for them, or so many reasons. This world has turned so nasty.”

Observer staff writer Gavin Off contributed.

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