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First day of school in CHCCS sees 'secure mode' lockdown after shooting at UNC

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An Estes Elementary School Parent walks their child home from school on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

A message came over the loudspeaker at Guy B. Phillips Middle School around 1:30 p.m. on Monday: the school would be going into "secure mode." No students would be allowed outside.

Kelly Fox, a sixth grade teacher at Phillips, said she knew by the tone of voice over the intercom that something was not right. This was not a drill.

About half an hour earlier, a faculty member at UNC was shot in Caudill Laboratories, and the University was under a full lockdown. It was the first day of the school year in surrounding Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

But, inside, class went on. Fox kept trying to get to know her new students. The class bells kept ringing. Nobody really knew for a while what was going on, but Fox said teachers kept getting texts asking if they were okay. 

A student asked Fox what was going on. She told the student — since she didn't have much information herself — that they were in a safe space.

"I've been teaching for 20 years, and this was a first," Fox said. "It made me nervous. But if there was a school system that I was going to be in with something like this occurring, I'm glad I was where I was. I felt safe."

Monday was Sarah LaTour's first day as a teacher. LaTour is a recent graduate of N.C. State University, and she was teaching sixth grade students at Culbreth Middle School when administrators came down the hallway and told her to close her door, she said. 

The administrators didn't immediately tell LaTour what was really happening, she said. She thought there might be something going on in the school, or maybe outside, until an announcement was made by administrators that Culbreth was in a secure lockdown. Nobody was allowed to leave the school building, but classes could continue as normal.

"It was a little nerve-racking," LaTour said. "I mean, I tried to be — I tried to be as calm and collected as I could. But the kids, they could tell something was up."

Culbreth usually has a no cell phone policy, but during her last period of the day, LaTour told her students to contact their parents. She said that helped them settle down.

LaTour's first day of teaching didn't end until CHCCS got an "all clear" at 3:40 p.m., and she didn't leave the school until around 5 p.m. Some students who rode the bus home didn't leave until 5:30 or 6 p.m., she said.

"Especially the first day of school, all the kids were confused, even kind of scared themselves," LaTour said.

Fox said she checked in with her daughters, who both attend East Chapel Hill High School, and got several updates throughout the afternoon from Andy Jenks, chief communications office for CHCCS.

Patrick Nagle, a parent of two children at Estes Hills Elementary School and Phillips, said he felt that his children were safe during the lockdown, partially because of the constant communication from the district.

"That actually brought some distinct confidence that the school was taking measures to really ensure safety, that they wouldn't dismiss kids until they were given the all clear," he said.

When schools were finally dismissed, Nagle said he walked out of his home to meet his middle schooler, whom he thought would be heading home by then.

He hadn't walked more than 50 yards before he saw his daughter coming down the street.

"I just played it cool when I saw her and said, 'Hey, how was school today?'" Nagle said. "And she's a typical teenager, you know: 'Good.' 'How were the classes?' 'Good.' 'You hear anything going on at school?' 'Yeah.'"

Then, Nagle said he went to Estes Hills to pick up his son, who immediately started talking about how he didn't like his first day of school because he had to stay inside all day.

"I think he thinks that it's the new school that does it like that," Nagle said. "He's not getting that he was in 'secure mode.'"

Amy Evers, a music teacher at Seawell Elementary School, said she had first graders in her class when the lockdown began. They were genuinely curious about what was going on, she said. Some students thought it might have been the rain that was delaying their dismissal.

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She told her students there was an emergency at UNC and that they would be staying inside until they got the "all clear." Evers said she felt utter disappointment — "Not again," she thought.

"I had a parent come up to me and ask, 'How do I talk to my first grader about gun violence?'" Evers said.

@ethanehorton1

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com


Ethan E. Horton

Ethan E. Horton is the 2023-24 city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a city & state assistant editor and as the 2023 summer managing editor. Ethan is a senior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and political science, with a minor in history.

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