Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Unification operation at Williston was disorderly, chaotic post-New Hanover High shooting

After a shooting at Hanover High School, a crowd of parents demand answers from law enforcement officers about how and when students will be released. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON –– Monday, in the blistering afternoon heat outside Williston Middle, parents waited anxiously to unite with the children they’d sent to New Hanover High earlier that morning, only to learn hours later of shots fired on the campus.

More than 1,000 high schoolers were evacuated and escorted several blocks to the middle school on 10th Street, where they were locked inside and monitored. Parents were informed around noon through various channels that pick up would take place at the MLK Center, but were given no timeline for when students would be released, leading to tensions between parents demanding answers and law enforcement with little information.

The unfolding of events that followed had the community questioning whether the district had adequately prepared for the potential of an on-campus shooting, an inevitable reality school systems and universities have faced nationwide.

“All the school shootings . . . and we ain’t got a plan? We don’t have a fucking plan?” one man cried out after speaking to an administrator in front of Williston Middle.

Shortly after 11 a.m., a student was shot in front of a crowd of classmates who were witnessing a fight in the high school’s catwalk overlooking Market Street. The gunshots — which can be heard on a cell phone video that was circulating online immediately following the incident — put an end to the violent brawl that erupted during a period change. A juvenile suffered non-life threatening injuries in the shooting and was transported to the hospital.

Alongside the county’s other top law enforcement officials, New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon announced just before 3 p.m. the alleged shooter, a 15-year-old, was apprehended and issued a “whole host of charges.”

The suspect is faced with attempted first-degree murder, carrying and discharging a weapon on school grounds, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and inflict serious injury.

New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Charles Foust accepted questions from the media later in the evening during a press conference at the board of education center. When asked whether the district planned for a shooting event, Foust said “you can never be 100% prepared,” but acknowledged the district has protocols in place for active shootings, just as it does for fire drills.

NHCS practices lockdowns up to twice a year at each of its locations to prepare for the chance of a perceived or real threat on campuses. Immediately following the shooting, students scattered — some hid in bathrooms, others janitor closets — and teachers ushered others into classrooms, as the school remained in lockdown for about half an hour. Officers swept classrooms armed, as students raised their hands while they entered.

Officials confirmed there was “no active shooter,” before the students were relocated to Williston for a headcount. The shooter’s whereabouts were still unknown.

It is still not clear why students were moved. School system officials said they followed the command of law enforcement, which is the district’s safety plan in a crisis situation.

The spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office told Port City Daily at approximately 1:55 p.m. –– after groups of students were led through open air –– that officers had yet to locate the shooter but added the public was not in danger. Authorities declined to take questions during its news briefing held earlier in the day, reasoning the case involved a minor (though during the past two press conferences regarding a double homicide case, no questions were accepted either, an increasingly common and opaque practice by the sheriff and district attorney).

As students were walking, officers were setting up drones in the New Hanover High parking lot and a helicopter was circling overhead. The campus was searched by school resource officers, the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook, to ensure all students were evacuated.

In the New Hanover High parking lot, Wilmington Police Department officers set up multiple drones. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Parents were instructed to pick up their children at the MLK Center, a community center across from Williston on 8th Street. A crowd gathered in anticipation but quickly grew frustrated with the lack of direction.

Walter Davis, the father of a ninth and tenth grader, was reading texts from his son in the walkway outside Williston. He told Port City Daily he was confused as to why students were not placed under a lockdown.

“We ain’t never seen nothing like this. A shooting at the school, they take them from the school and bring them all the way here,” Davis said. “They’re walking them through the hood.”

New Hanover High students walk down 12th Street with their belongings toward Williston Middle after a fight escalated to a shooting on the campus. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

During the press conference, school officials explained the decision to relocate students was made with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and Wilmington Police Department.

“They were maintaining the safety in that area, the perimeter and making sure that we had an evacuation spot that was safe,” said Julie Varnam, assistant superintendent of student support services.

Foust added that he felt safe with officials pursuing the evacuation. Backpacks in tow and cell phones in hand, students were led by armed officers on the 0.7 mile hike through 12th and 10th streets to the middle school.

“We have to stand down when officers are in place,” the superintendent said.

One mother said her child’s anxiety was heightened as she walked toward Williston. She told her child via text to stick with the group. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Darlene Powell said she texted her junior first to “stay low,” then told them to stick with a group.

“They are a little bit panicked,” Powell said on the lawn of Williston. “They knew that there was a shooting, that it was on school premises, that they were fine on lockdown. They got more anxious with the move. And they saw blood. And so, their anxiety rose.”

Powell is president of the PTA at the school, but she admits she was unhappy with the communication after the incident.

“To find out about it from your kid and then to be, you know, updating pieces here and there is not good,” she said just after 1 p.m. “Like I haven’t heard if the shooter has been taken into custody.”

A shooting was not confirmed by the NHCS communications office until around 12:45 p.m. By that point, most parents and community members had learned of the incident through the local press, social media, word of mouth, or texts or calls from their children. The district informed parents about the pick up at the MLK Center but did not provide an estimated time of release, leading many parents to arrive on foot or in their car at the community building and middle school without further instruction.

As Aaron St. Juste waited for his sophomore son’s release, he attempted to calm parents who surrounded him by providing the information he’d learned thus far. Some were hearing rumors about students under interrogation or searched while inside the building. Others were unsure if the shooter was still among the students.

District officials later denied those steps were taken and said students were merely monitored while in the middle school gym, auditorium and cafeteria.

“He’s communicating he’s OK,” St. Juste said of his son. “And it sounds like the actual situation is no longer an active situation. So, right now, I’m just trying to extend them some grace, trying to be patient.”

“You’re one in 500, bro,” chimed in one man, who declined an interview.

Parents wait outside the MLK Center on 8th Street for students of New Hanover High to be released from the middle school across the street. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Tensions rose as misinformation spread. While numerous parents remained outside the middle school, others sweated it out on metal picnic tables or in baseball field dugouts of the MLK Center across the street. Flocks of caregivers headed toward the school after hearing kids would be picked up at the front office. Others heard the children would be bussed to the community center.

“They done walk them through 13th,” one woman said. “They done went through the bottom –– all that to bus them from here to there.”

Victoria Kirwan, the mother of a freshman, said she was disturbed by the parent reactions she witnessed when she arrived at Williston. She wrote in an email she was in a “whirlwind” after learning of the shooting, but was in constant communication with her son, who was OK, and believed other parents had received the same assurance.

“At one point I thought a riot was going to break out as a large group of belligerent parents were screaming and flailing their hands at police officers,” Kirwan wrote. “I was afraid for my safety and the safety of the police officers.”

Powell said though she wanted to help where she could, the situation was heightening her anxiety. “There are some people who are really, really mad out here,” she said.

At approximately 2 p.m., NHCS announced the release of the high schoolers by groups, beginning at the MLK Center. Bus rides were offered to students whose parents were unable to pick them up.

Buses line up along Castle Street ahead of the New Hanover High students’ dismissal from Williston Middle. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

New Hanover High is not holding classes Tuesday, though staff is expected to come in for a workday. The school’s principal, Philip Sutton, said staff is meeting first thing Tuesday morning to debrief and will receive crisis services. “We’ve been through a traumatic situation, and we need to take time to make sure that everyone’s social emotional needs are met,” Sutton said.

Students are also invited to campus to meet with therapists. A crisis team will continue being available when classes resume Wednesday. A bilingual mental health therapy line (910-798-6501) is open.

“Call that phone line for some immediate support, whether it’s fear over what happened today, concern over returning to school or any of that,” Varnam said.

Before the announcement students would not resume classes Tuesday, parents were already weighing options on how to move forward. Davis said he would talk to his kids after they exited Williston about returning to class: “This ain’t the first time they’ve been around shootings,” he said. “It’s been happening in this area.”

St. Juste said he is an alumnus of the school but is unsure about its state nowadays. This event has him questioning his children’s schooling. Last year, his sophomore was learning from home due to Covid. This was only the second week of the school year, he recognized.

“I do have some anxieties and concerns as a result of this situation, about him continuing,” he said. “I don’t know if this is reflective of what has happened in the last couple years at Hanover or if this is some sort of isolated incident.”

Wilmington has seen an uptick in gun violence among youth.

Also on Monday, a second 15-year-old juvenile was arrested for an unrelated shooting of a mother and daughter on Downey Branch Lane. Both victims survived.

In April, a gang-tied shooting broke out at a house party on Kidder Street with at least 40 attendees, mostly young adults and teenagers. Three people were murdered and four were injured. All victims were under 22 years old; the youngest of the deceased was 16.

Months later, that case is still unsolved, due largely to a lack of participating eyewitnesses, according to the Wilmington Police Department. As of Monday morning there is no update on the case except that the investigation is ongoing.

The month prior to the shooting at the party, District Attorney Ben David held a press conference in response to consecutive shootings involving juveniles in February. He addressed the crisis of teens getting their hands on weapons and stressed his commitment to trying youth as adults for their roles in violent crimes.

On Monday he revealed the name of the 15-year-old suspect –– a decision that was condemned by sectors of the community –– and mentioned in the news conference that the suspect’s hearings would become public if his office seeks a transfer to adult court.

Send tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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