When a school shooting happens in a small town, the handful of lights along Main Street still turn from green to yellow to red. When a school shooting happens in a small town, people still visit the grocery store, still play with their phones on their front porches, still teach their kids how to hit a baseball off a batting tee. When a school shooting happens in a small town, people still go to church because it's the only thing on steady ground, and sing songs like "Amazing Grace" because everyone knows the words.
When a school shooting happened in a former mill town about an hour east of Charlotte, A.J. Harris was pulling up to Albemarle High. It was a little after 7:30 a.m. on the last day in September.
The 18-year-old senior linebacker could have been thinking about the upcoming game against West Montgomery High in Mount Gilead, a town about 25 minutes south. Maybe not. It was early, and he was running late to first period. As he walked up to school, he noticed some kids weren't in class. A group had gathered around what he quickly deduced was a boy lying on the ground. Then came the sirens.
AROUND 8 A.M., Jason Moxley called the teenager he had been fostering who goes to Albemarle High. It would be 45 minutes until he'd get a response. He was OK, the 16-year-old told Moxley. Students had been evacuated after the shooting and sent home.
As dusk arrives, Moxley still looks jumpy. His eyes, set in a wide, tan face with deep creases, dart between cars arriving at a stoplight outside a Dairy Queen. A car horn nearly sends him out of his chair. A Maryland native, Moxley has lived in Albemarle for 17 years, but small-town politics — nepotism, general disregard for change, too much prayer and not enough action — have beaten him down. He fantasizes about bartending on a beach in Jamaica.
When a school shooting happens in a small town, people get angry. They say everything feels different, but know nothing will change.
Moxley, a basketball coach, remembers an incident he witnessed in which a player on another local basketball team cursed out his coach but was still allowed to play. Moxley tried complaining to the school board. He smacks his gum harder and his eyes can't stop surveying the traffic as he explains, with a little edge in his voice, how frustrated he was after no one would call him back. He was eventually asked to leave coaching, a volunteer position, because someone accused him of trying to recruit the best players. He rolls his eyes. The way he tells it, "they" — as he jumps between stories, even those not involving the school board, he refers to the powers that be as "they" — have been working against him all along.
He rambles, but he isn't crazy. He's frustrated. Frustrated that down the street exists a poor neighborhood where kids he once coached witness friends and family members being shot. Frustrated that the city hasn't built a basketball court for restless youth, only gives jobs and favors to Albemarle's well-connected. He says someone should be held accountable for the kid in the hospital. He wants something to change, but he can't put his finger on what, exactly. He's thought of writing his local senator. To complain about what, though, he isn't specific. He's heard rumors that someone will investigate the local court system. He doesn't say why.
THEY'D TRAINED for this — much worse, actually, the city's sullen-looking chief of police tells a pack of reporters at a press conference after the shooting. Over the summer, the Albemarle Police Department worked with local law enforcement agencies on how to respond to a large-scale mass shooting in a school, should one ever occur. None had in recent memory.
When the call came on this foggy Sept. 30 morning, 20 police officers were quick to respond. Teams were sent into the school to diffuse any additional shooters. But there was just one, allegedly: a 15-year-old who'd brought a handgun to school to use against a fellow student, who was now bleeding in a nearby hospital after being shot in the stomach and leg. As of press time, the victim was still in a Charlotte hospital.
In a subsequent interview with WCCB, a woman who claimed to be the suspect's mom said her son had complained that morning about threatening text messages he had allegedly received from the victim. He told her he didn't want to go to school. He went anyway with a gun he had taken from his grandmother's home.
Chief William Halliburton told reporters the suspect quickly dropped the weapon and surrendered himself to police. According to various news outlets and people I spoke with in Albemarle, the same teen had reportedly stabbed another with a pair of scissors a year earlier. As of press time, the school board and superintendent had not responded to inquiries as to why a student with a history of violence was allowed to attend a regular public school.
On this same early fall day, another angry teenager brought a gun to another high school in another state and shot and injured another student. Days earlier, the FBI had released a report that showed the number of mass shootings has risen drastically in the last few years, with a majority occurring in schools.
WHEN A SCHOOL shooting happens in a small town, police departments around the country look at what went right and what went wrong. On the morning of Sept. 30, Captain Steve Brucho of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department was at a meeting in Raleigh with other first responders from across the state when the news from Albemarle interrupted their conversation. They were talking about how their respective municipalities, from rural areas to the largest cities, would work similarly when responding to a school shooting.
The group formed after several high-profile incidents: Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech. It was only their second meeting. Even their name — the Joint Agency Response to Active Assailant Incident — is a working title.
Brucho heads up the Special Operations Division for CMPD. Working with a SWAT team, a bomb squad and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' police department (one of two school systems in the state that has its own force), Brucho oversees mock active shooting scenarios.
He can't discuss specific response tactics, but he does say departments around the country have focused more on active-shooting scenarios, hence the task force. He also says regardless of the department they represent, officers in North Carolina receive the same training and know how to respond to an active shooting.
"When they arrive on scene, each one of those officers, although they're with different agencies, they know exactly how to respond in concert together," he says.
Still, gaps in training exist, which Brucho hopes the task force will close.
"It's really just professionals getting together and having candid discussions about their capabilities and learning from one another how they can respond better," he says. Once the dust has settled in Albemarle, the task force will call on the local police department to debrief them.
When a school shooting happens in a small town, the sun still sets behind a dense, uninterrupted row of evergreens into a pool of the brightest shades of orange and pink.