What happened at Mount Tabor High School after the shooting
Last September, many of us saw the news about a student who was shot and killed at a school in Winston-Salem. It may have faded away from your memory. But not for them.
NOTE FROM JEREMY: As I’ve been reading the awful news from Uvalde, Texas, I keep thinking back to last September 1. On that day, I was having lunch with a colleague in Winston-Salem when we heard the sirens multiplying. We were both former news reporters, and instantly knew something awful had happened. A student had been shot and killed at Mount Tabor High School, less than a mile away. The news unfolded as it now typically does in these horrific situations. Shots fired. A school in lockdown. Reports on victims. Status of the shooter. Attempts to contain justified parent panic. Interviews with witnesses. A press conference. Raw emotion. And then, eventually, nothing. The public loses interest.
The people affected by the shooting do not. Earlier this month, Rachel Crumpler wrote a deeply reported story about what happened inside Mount Tabor that day, and what happened since then. “I am a Tabor grad,” she tells me. “Ms. Schaefer, the main teacher profiled, taught me in high school.” That story was posted a few weeks ago on UNC MediaHub (Crumpler, then a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill, has since graduated). I’ve been given permission to share it here. “Before, I only really knew what I saw on the news. It hadn’t been covered in-depth,” she says of the shooting. There were headlines, but little followup on the emotional toll of that violence. “We don’t know what they go through.”
I’m posting Rachel’s story below not to re-traumatize anyone, but to remind you that while you may be able to move on, a growing number of people who grow up in the shadow of violence cannot. -Jeremy
Eight days into the 2021 fall semester, at 12:07 p.m., assistant principal Evette Clemons raced down the hall. She shouted into her walkie-talkie, “Shots fired, shots fired! We need to go into lockdown!”
In the hall, English teacher Laurie Schaefer thought, “Is this really happening? Did I just hear that right?” Her second-period class at Mount Tabor High School had just ended, and she was chatting with Emily Houlditch, who assists Schaefer with the class.
Seconds later, the school’s administrative assistant announced in a calm voice over the intercom that Mount Tabor was moving into lockdown.
It wasn’t a drill. Drills don’t happen during third period. Lunch is never disrupted.
Now, eight days into the semester, one sophomore student’s violent act, taking approximately 45 seconds, upended the day, the year.
In the hall, Schaefer yelled at students, many of whom were still plodding along as if it were a drill, to get into classrooms. The online active shooter training Schaefer completes before every school year was no longer a hypothetical.
After the hallway was clear, Schaefer rushed into her classroom, along with Houlditch. Both teachers had third-period planning, meaning they had no students in their classrooms.
They covered the door and windows with paper. Turned off the lights. Moved out of view. They were ready to endure the lockdown together in the empty room.
But then Schaefer thought of the bathrooms. What if there were students there? Though protocol advises teachers not to open their doors, Schaefer ran down the hall to the bathrooms. No one was there, but she felt better having checked.
Schaefer’s act didn’t surprise Houlditch, who has taught at Mount Tabor for nine years.
“She is always thinking of others and trying to protect our students — that’s her number one concern,” Houlditch said.
Minutes later, Schaefer heard four students running in the hall, knocking on doors, trying to get into a classroom. Recognizing two of them as her former students, she opened her door to let them in, and then locked it behind them.
They sat along the far wall of her classroom, a room she has spent countless years building into her sanctuary. The walls are covered with student projects, and the desks are arranged in groups that foster student collaboration.
On this Wednesday, fear and uncertainty was the mood — the antithesis of the environment she seeks to create.
For 27 years, Schaefer had avoided the grim experience hundreds of other schools have had to confront. Until September 1 — when a school shooting occurred at her home away from home, the only school she has taught at.
“I felt like in an instant, I almost didn’t recognize my school, my home,” Schaefer said. “It didn’t feel safe. It had just been violated.”
Schaefer texted her family to let them know what was happening. She wanted them to hear it from her. Two of her sisters, who she lives with, were on an Alaskan cruise at the time of the shooting. They went to a coffee shop and watched the news, waiting to hear she was safe.
Dozens of other people were texting Schaefer, checking in. She had so many texts, she couldn’t respond to all individually. Soon, she heard sirens. She posted on Facebook for her friends to see, and her post was shared with the media.
“I am safe, as are the kids I pulled out of the hall as they were running. Please pray for our school community now. We are surrounded by the police and I feel safe as they search for the shooter,” she wrote.
Still, there was too much unknown. How many people had been shot? Was the shooter still in the school?
A few doors down the hallway, senior William Burns was sheltering in social studies teacher Tonya Dorman’s classroom. Burns’ cousin and best friend were with him.
Less than 30 minutes before, Burns, who serves as student body president, had been working on college applications in the media center. Now, his future was being threatened by violence on school grounds. His senior year was tainted. Disrupted.
“We’re just going to be another one of those schools on the news,” he realized.
Initially, students and staff heard reports of multiple victims. That terrified them.
They were glued to their phones, looking for any updates and communicating with family, friends and colleagues.
As the lockdown dragged on, he grew increasingly concerned and called his mother. Talking to her was the only time he shed a tear.
About 45 minutes into the lockdown, a police officer started talking on the school intercom. “If anybody’s wounded and we don’t know where you are, call the main office,” they said.
This message was repeated every half hour.
After a couple of hours, police officers entered the classroom with their guns up and loaded. That frightening image will never leave Burns’ memory.
Burns and the other students, walking with their hands up, were evacuated to the media center — one of three locations the Winston-Salem Police Department and Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office decided to funnel students to as they cleared the school, room by room.
The four students in Schaefer’s room had important information.
“The shooter, he was in the parking lot,” they told her. “He tried to get in our car.”
Schaefer asked, “Did he hold a gun on you?”
“No, but he seemed really, really desperate and he was very insistent,” the students answered.
That’s when they bolted away from him and into the school, finding Schaefer. They also told her they saw him dump his backpack in a trash can in the school parking lot.
She relayed the information to the police and, because the students had information relevant to the investigation, her classroom was one of the last to be evacuated. Rather, they were kept in her room to be interviewed and an officer was stationed outside the door at around 2 p.m.
Even with the stationed officer, Schaefer’s anxiety remained high. She was not allowed to leave the room to go to the bathroom, forcing her to go into her book storage closet, find a bucket and pee. She felt embarrassed, demoralized.
They spent at least three hours in her classroom before being escorted to the auditorium.
The walk there was eerie as Schaefer saw moments frozen in time — open lunch boxes, half-eaten sandwiches, water bottles with the lid off — on the courtyard tables and along the breezeway between the school’s two buildings.
In the auditorium, Schaefer sat on the stage and heard students recount the shooting, attempting to process what they had seen.
“We were hungry. We were terrified. We were tired. We had been traumatized multiple times,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer didn’t know she’d spend three hours gathered there with half of the school’s students and staff. She was without her cancer medications, and it took her a while to obtain special permission and a police escort back to her room to obtain it.
By around 6:30 p.m., all of Mount Tabor’s 1,400-plus students had been loaded onto buses heading to off-site locations for pick-up.
Schaefer pulled out of the school in her silver minivan around 8:30 p.m., after a staff debriefing.
This school shooting marked the first in the school district’s history. And it occurred at principal Ed Weiss’ cherished “Tabor City.”
He’s spent 25 years at the school, serving as a coach, teacher, assistant principal, principal and parent of three Mount Tabor graduates.
“We are not going to let one very poor decision — one thought process of a student — define the 50-plus years of a really solid-as-a-rock high school,” Weiss said.
Weiss, who has led the school for 13 years, was off-campus for a meeting at Central Office at the time of the shooting.
Guiding the school through the aftermath of the shooting has been an incredible weight — a task that has pushed him to retire at the end of this school year.
Frank DeAngelis, the principal at Columbine High School during the 1999 school shooting, knows firsthand the toll of the job. He emailed Weiss the day after the shooting to offer his expertise on the situation.
Weiss said his three-hour Zoom call with DeAngelis was one of the most important of his life.
He had a “thought partner” on a topic that no one ever wants to think about. He took in DeAngelis’ message that, “You can’t help others until you take care of yourself” — one Weiss had DeAngelis share with faculty the evening before school resumed on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Schaefer had an emergency Zoom call with her therapist before she went back to school.
Returning to school less than a week after the shooting was emotional and surreal. She couldn’t look at the halls the same way — the ones that had been cleared by teams of police in full combat gear with automatic rifles.
She was unsure how to welcome students back, what to say. Do you move on and start taking notes? Talk deeply about the shooting and how they’re feeling?
The New Hanover High School English department helped Schaefer with this dilemma. Two days earlier, a shooting occurred at their Wilmington school. Teachers sent the lesson plan they used on the first day back.
The lesson involved students designing and coloring their own food trucks and creating the menu with vivid adjectives. Schaefer told the students exactly where she got the activity — that it helped another school that went through a similar experience— and her students got absorbed in it.
“As we did that, they were very, very quiet but I think they appreciated knowing, ‘I can be in my own space. I can just color or I can think about food and things I like to eat,’” Schaefer said.
Many students didn’t return to school right away. The ones closest to the trauma weren’t present for the therapy dogs, the crisis team and the community volunteers.
This school shooting was different from most. It was not random. It is said to have been gang-related.
On Sept. 1, sophomore Maurice Evans Jr. fatally shot sophomore William Chavis Raynard Miller Jr. once in the abdomen before running off, police said. Miller died from his injuries at a nearby hospital and Evans was arrested that evening.
Evans’ attorney, in an October court appearance, described the events of the day as not a “school shooting,” but a personal dispute between two people that happened to unfold at school.
The summer before the shooting, Evans was shot nine times in a dispute, and, at school, Miller threatened “to finish the job” in reference to the previous shooting, according to his attorney.
Evans, 16, was indicted for murder in Miller’s death, and he is being held without bond at a juvenile detention center in Greensboro. He will be tried as an adult.
According to law enforcement, there are 600 validated gang members in Forsyth County and up to 2,000 are on their radar. Investigators say Triad gangs are targeting kids to join.
The shooting’s ties to gangs make healing different. The gangs are still present at Tabor, and they always have been, as at other area schools. But the school can’t necessarily grieve together and move on. There’s division.
“Both these boys were sophomores, and I teach sophomores,” Schaefer said. “A lot of my kids were friends with the kid who died, and I have other kids that are friends with the kid who did the shooting — and they hate each other. It’s an ongoing thing for us.”
In fact, nobody told her she had students with connections to rival gangs in her second period. She found out in October when one of her students opened her classroom door and let in a stranger — a six-foot kid she had never seen before. He came to jump a student in her class. Standing by the door, she shoved both students outside her room and held them back while she called for help.
Afterward, she couldn’t stop shaking. She was thinking of all the what-ifs — ones made more prominent after the shooting. What if he had a gun? A knife? The fear lingers with her every day.
Burns drove by Mount Tabor the day after the shooting. He saw the yellow police tape surrounding the school and thought of blood on the floors. It spooked him.
Though it had crossed his mind before the shooting, the danger of potential school violence now is at the forefront of Burns’ thoughts.
“The sad reality is there could be two guys or a girl and a guy or whatever next to me at school in the class and they can both have guns in their bag or in their jacket pocket,” Burns said.
After a year of online school and social isolation, the first week of the year had been a challenge as students and teachers adjusted to the school environment. It had just started to feel somewhat normal again when the violence unfolded, and the school population, suddenly, had a larger adjustment before it.
The idea that Mount Tabor was impenetrable to the nation’s gun violence burst.
And Tabor’s 1,400-plus students and 120-plus faculty and staff would all process that differently, at different speeds over the coming months.
Now, Schaefer walks into school and considers when the next shooting will happen, not if. She’s coping the best she can.
She bought a camp bucket to store in her closet to be prepared if she’s ever stuck in her room again, unable to go to the bathroom. She always locks her door and keeps a close eye on who comes in.
And she’s made a personal vow to pay it forward, to help other schools going through shootings, as the New Hanover teachers did for her. She’s decided to email her first day back lesson plans to schools that have experienced a shooting, just as the New Hanover teachers did for her. She sent her first email to a school that experienced a shooting less than a week after Tabor’s shooting and has sent half a dozen since.
“I love teaching and I love my students who have gone along with me in learning to forget for a little bit,” Schaefer said. “But then in English, like the trauma, I’ll see it in their writing. I’ll see it when they’re writing a poem or something. They work it into almost everything.”
It’s been the hardest teaching year Schaefer’s ever had. And that’s after last year, when she endured chemo and radiation treatments to treat her endometrial cancer as well as hybrid teaching. She’d do that all over again to not go through the past months of fumbling in the dark, trying to heal as a school. A teacher. A person.