As 12-year-old Ajani Dartiguenave sat on the floor of his classroom Nov. 9, he pulled a pencil from his bookbag and tearfully asked a friend for a sheet of paper.
Ajani is part of the lockdown generation, children who grew up thinking it’s normal to practice locking doors and hiding from a shooter. His mother was the age he is now when two students gunned down classmates and faculty at Columbine High, turning lockdowns into part of America’s school culture.
But less than two weeks earlier, Ajani and his mom, Claudia Charles, had been driving to his school at Governor’s Village STEM Academy when the radio brought news that a student had been shot in a hall at Butler High.
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That made the threat of being shot at school real to Ajani, Charles said. So when the voice on the intercom at Ajanai’s school said this lockdown was not a drill, he started writing.
“Dear mom,” Ajani wrote. “Right now I am scared to death. I need a warm soft hug. I will miss you ... I hope that you are going to be OK with me gone.”
He wrote his address at the top, in case someone else had to make sure his farewell went to the right mother.
Ajani and all his classmates came home safe from their K-8 magnet school in northeast Charlotte. But his heart-wrenching letter drives home a new reality for educators, parents and students in the Charlotte area: School shootings are no longer something that happens elsewhere.
Fear swells more quickly when there’s trouble — and any hint of trouble spreads at the speed of a text message. That’s posing new challenges for a district which, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox admits, had gotten “a bit complacent” about its ability to head off gun violence.
Friday afternoon Wilcox announced a slate of security enhancements, ranging from random wanding and bag searches to better crisis communication with families. His news conference can be viewed on the district’s Facebook page, and CMS is offering details on the plan on its safety web page, www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmssafety.
Before Butler, Ajani’s mom probably wouldn’t have gotten worked up about a lockdown. She remembers her two younger children blithely telling her last year about a stranger who had wandered into their elementary school and prompted a lockdown.
But her son’s letter was devastating. She hadn’t heard anything from the school, so she wasn’t sure what to say to him. “You have to make them feel like you have all the answers,” Charles said, “even when you don’t.”
According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Nov. 9 lockdown was prompted by a threat that didn’t prove to be credible. It wasn’t even a full lockdown, with doors locked and students keeping out of view of windows and doors, spokeswoman Renee McCoy said. Instead, students weren’t allowed outside for about 35 minutes, while police investigated.
But Ajani and his friends didn’t know that. Charles says they cried and prayed, and a few of them wrote letters.
Ajani started by apologizing to his family: The day before he had gotten in trouble — nothing huge, but enough for the teacher to call home.
“I am sorry for anything I have done, the trouble I caused ... I’m sorry so sorry,” he wrote on an index card. He then got a sheet of paper and wrote a longer farewell.
He asked his mother to relay his regret to his father, who lives in Boston. “I hope that all of you live long,” he wrote. “Mom, I hope that your OK without me. Goodbye.”
Charles says Ajani told his younger brother and sister about his scary day at school before he told her. She found out, she says, when her 6-year-old said, “If I die in school I love you.”
Charles says the experience has made her rethink lockdowns. She questions whether schools should even do drills now, and believes parents need to know whenever there’s an incident, even if it turns out to be a false alarm.
“If I have to reassure my child, I need to know what happened,” she said.
Ajani didn’t have a cellphone to text his mom while he was afraid. She says she bought him one the next day.
Just in case.