Some thought there was a bear on campus. Others heard there had been a shooting at a bus stop. Some said as many as four people were injured.
Sept. 1 was the fourth day of school for the Asheville City Schools district, but before classes began that morning, an email from ACS announced a perimeter lockdown at Asheville High School and the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville.
“The high school campus has been placed on a perimeter lockdown,” an email sent at 8:18 a.m. from ACS public information officer Dillon Huffman said. “That means no one is allowed inside or out of the building. This is a precaution due to an incident that has happened in the community.” (A perimeter lockdown also was placed at Asheville Middle School.)
Back-to-school time is already filled with jitters about classes and homework. But the continual threat of school violence after the murder of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 has compelled schools across the country to tighten safety precautions.
The Asheville Police Department, Buncombe County’s Sheriff’s Office, ACS and Buncombe County Schools are upgrading security features in the schools. Nevertheless, parents of children who attend AHS, SILSA and AMS tell Xpress the experience of a perimeter lockdown Sept. 1 was rattling, and assessment of that response was mixed.
14-year-old female shot
As happens during any breaking news incident, people exchanged information via phone calls, texts and social media. Much of the initial information about the shooting shared between students and parents would turn out to be rumors.
Amy Ray, a candidate for the ACS Board of Education, says bears have caused perimeter lockdowns in the past at her daughter’s schools. A perimeter lockdown does not allow anyone to enter or exit a building, but they can move through the building; during a full lockdown, students remain in their classrooms.
Ray says her daughter, a sixth grader at AMS, “believed the lockdown to be related to bears and so was not particularly alarmed.” (All candidates for the ACS Board of Education were given the opportunity by Xpress to comment via email for this article.)
Another rumor alleged the shooting occurred at a bus stop, although whether it belonged to the Asheville Rides Transit city bus system or ACS Transportation Department was unclear.
Both ACS and APD released information updates throughout the day Sept. 1. An APD media release sent at 8:58 a.m. stated officers were dispatched to Erskine Avenue at 8:01 a.m. after a juvenile was shot. “The victim has been transported to Mission Hospital with serious injuries, but in stable condition,” it read. “Nearby schools are in lockdown as a precaution.”
ACS lifted the perimeter lockdown at 9:45 a.m., according to an email sent at 10:03 to parents by April Dockery, executive director of operations for ACS. That email explained the procedure of a perimeter lockdown and said, “Our lockdown plan worked exactly as anticipated.”
Dockery’s email said ACS would work with the Asheville Police Department to investigate the incident. “We will keep you informed as we are able,” Dockery wrote. “There was an isolated incident that occurred near our campus. Please know that there is a lot of misinformation around this incident. We can confirm that the victim is in stable condition.”
ACS sent another email to parents at 4:16 p.m. that day, reiterating the victim was in stable condition, and stating, “This incident DID NOT happen on ANY Asheville City Schools campus or at a bus stop.”
On Sept. 2, APD issued a media release that explained the incident “appears to be an accidental shooting.” (APD spokesperson Bill Davis declined to elaborate, citing the need for further investigation.) The release continued, “Further investigation revealed the juvenile was shot inside of a residence in the Erskine area. The juvenile, a 14-year-old female, was treated and released from Mission Hospital.”
When asked over email who decides when and how to notify parents about lockdowns, Huffman responded Sept. 7, “ACS district and school administration works with the Asheville Police Department on a case-by-case basis. We work as a team to make sure families are informed.”
Some parents say ACS did a great job notifying parents during the perimeter lockdown. Other parents expressed confusion and frustration with the timeliness of the communications and felt police presence at the three schools on lockdown was jarring, despite it being a safety measure.
When Amy Hurlston and her husband received emails about the shooting, she immediately texted her 14-year-old daughter, a freshman at SILSA. Her daughter shared what she had heard about the shooting. “I got all of that information from my daughter, not from any email I got from school,” she says.
Hurlston’s daughter had arrived at SILSA that morning and saw ambulances in the school’s neighborhood. On campus, “there were police officers telling us to go straight to class,” her daughter told Hurlston.
“I understand that they don’t want to cause pandemonium and mass hysteria,” Hurlston says of ACS. But she says she wishes the early morning notification from the district had stressed the shooting “happened in the surrounding neighborhood and … that it wasn’t on campus.” (The initial email referred to “an incident that has happened in the community.”)
However, police presence at schools is not necessarily unusual. Both AHS/SILSA and AMS have one school resource officer, which is an APD officer working in the school system. And in a Sept. 7 email to Xpress, Huffman said APD was assisting AHS/SILSA during the first week of school with morning drop-offs.
APD remained at AHS/SILSA and AMS Sept. 1 after the lockdown was lifted, spokesperson Davis says. ACS has not requested additional police presence at any school since the incident, Huffman adds.
Vicki Catalano, a marketing associate at Xpress and mother of a 14-year-old freshman at SILSA, felt frustrated that ACS sent its first email during a time many working parents are midcommute. As a result, “I heard about it from my daughter in a locked classroom,” she says. Catalano tells Xpress she wishes the first notification about the perimeter lockdown had been a robocall, which would have reached her more directly than an email. (Parents received a robocall from ACS after 10 a.m. when, simultaneously, spokesperson Dockery sent a second email to parents.)
Catalano also feels frustration that there wasn’t communication from ACS to parents between the first email at 8:18 a.m. and the second email and robocall after 10 a.m. “Two hours — we were freaking out for two hours,” she says. Like some other parents interviewed by Xpress, she describes refreshing the webpage for WLOS, a local TV news station, looking for any additional details.
Another AHS parent, Amanda Edwards, is vice chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and wife of Derek Edwards, the principal of AHS. Speaking with Xpress on Sept. 1, Amanda Edwards said she hadn’t contacted her spouse.
‘“I will not be reaching out to him because his priority right now is 1,600 students in his school building,” she said. “I would not want a school administrator to take their eyes off the safety of our children” to communicate with parents.
“We have to trust that we’ve got professionals in our schools that are taking care of our children,” she added.
Parent Pepi Acebo, who is running for the ACS board, tells Xpress he saw AHS Principal Edwards and several APD police officers in front of the school when he dropped off his child around 8:20 a.m. “They had things under control [as] they received kids during the perimeter lockdown,” he recalls. Acebo hadn’t seen the first email from ACS when he dropped off his child and thought the police presence was unusual.
“Even though I would have rather have gotten a robocall to let me know what was going on earlier, I think that the school system handled things well,” Acebo says. “And we did have good information get out to parents by 10 [a.m.].” Overall, he says he thought ACS “did a good job.”
Rebecca Strimer, another candidate for the ACS board, has daughters in sixth and eighth grades at AMS. When notified about the perimeter lockdown, Strimer says she tried not to “jump to any conclusions. … It’s already scary enough.”
Strimer says there’s no correct answer for “how much is the right amount of information [to provide] in the moment. There’s no threading that needle.”
She adds, “I think that very often there’s information people are yearning for and it’s just not available. And it’s hard — it’s really hard to sit in that discomfort.”