'We Did Not Expect Students to Just Get Over It': Teacher Explains School's Response to Fatal Shooting

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.
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
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Within hours of Monday’s fatal shooting at Butler High, the nation was debating Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ decision not to dismiss early.

An article on Time magazine’s website headlined “A North Carolina High School Did Not Dismiss Class After a Student Was Fatally Shot on Campus. Here’s Why,” cited a tweet saying the decision showed that in America, “school shootings are so normalized that students are expected and required to continue about their day while the body of their murdered classmate is still warm.”

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox went before reporters and cameras to explain that the school was trying to keep students on site until parents could pick them up. He defended the school’s response again at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

But it was Butler physical education teacher and wrestling coach Van Barkley, wearing a Butler cap and talking into his camera, whose explanation drove home what it was like to be inside the school as a fight outside the cafeteria turned into fatal gunfire.

In a Facebook video posted Tuesday that had been viewed more than 90,000 times as of Wednesday afternoon, Barkley said the shooting happened just before classes began, which meant teachers had to “grab whatever students they can, place them in their classroom and lock the door behind them.”

For Barkley and other gym teachers, that meant spending about two hours in a locker room with more than 100 students, he said. When the lockdown was lifted, students were instructed to go to their second-period classes. That drew criticism from students and families who were leaving the school, as well as from countless outsiders who considered it as sign of callousness and “business as usual.”

“This was not done so we could resume a normal school day, as many of you have heard,” Barkley said in the video. “We did not teach yesterday. We did not test yesterday. Instead, we moved our students to second block so we could account for where they were.”

If parents had showed up without the shift to scheduled classes, Barkley said, faculty would have had to check common areas and other classes to find their children. “Imagine a parent’s anger and confusion when they came to pick up their child after the tragic event and we could not find them,” he said.

Barkley repeated that teachers weren’t going on about normal business.

“Instead,” he said, “teachers were there for their students to provide any support they needed. We mourned together. We reflected together. We were there for each other, because that’s what Butler High School does.”

Barkley’s post quickly filled with kudos from colleagues and others. Many voiced dismay at the way an individual school’s tragedy was immediately filtered through media and turned into a symbol of other people’s ideas about gun violence and schools.

“Thank you, Van, for saying what needed to be said ... no drama, no politicizing ... just factual information that should be accepted at face value,” one said.

“As a former BHS student, thank you for this!” another said. “People are angry at how this was handled but had you released students to come and go as they pleased, they would have been just as angry. There is no pleasing everyone. That’s not your position, it is the care and safety of those students on a daily basis and for that I thank you greatly!”

On Wednesday, responding to an Observer query while filing first quarter grades and getting ready for wrestling season, Barkley explained more about what led to his post.

Barkley graduated from Butler in 2002, arriving the year after it opened, and came back as a teacher eight years ago, he said.

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The horror of the shooting was made worse by all the outside commentary, he said. “I found that instead of experiencing care and concern from the community, I was constantly having to defend our actions,” he said in an email.

Several outsiders have noted that the district’s own statement when Monday’s lockdown was lifted said that “classes will proceed ... for students remaining on campus.”

Barkley said he’s not interested in how the “miscommunication” began.

“All I wanted to do was let people know that Butler faculty and staff are not the cold-hearted robots that they were being portrayed as,” he said. “We did not expect students to ‘just get over it’ and learn. We were devastated as well. ... We grieve for the student who lost his life, for the student who took irrevocable actions, and the students who will never walk the hallways the same.”

All he really wants now, Barkley said, is for the community to show the same compassion for Butler’s faculty as those educators show for their students.

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