David W. Butler High School has long been known for its strengths. Academically and athletically, the school’s hallmark has been persistence followed by victory. Even its school mascot, the bulldog, is a symbol of, well, dogged determination.
Named for a teacher who died saving his family when their house caught fire, Butler takes pride in upholding the values displayed by that brave and selfless teacher: dedication, perseverance and commitment.
Those values have been fully visible in the year that has elapsed since one student fatally shot another at the school on Oct. 29, 2018. Principal John LeGrand, who became the principal of Butler more than five years ago, said he was impressed, but not surprised, by the strength and the tenacity of the school’s staff.
“We are a strong team,” he said. “Even before this happened, when someone was sick, or dealing with a family issue, we are all here for each other. When we come back from summer break, it’s like a family reunion.”
A year later, students and staff are still dealing with the aftermath of the shooting. But LeGrand has been determined to make sure that positive things come from it too.
He told the staff the day after the shooting, “This is either going to bring us closer together or tear us apart. Let’s come together.”
They did. That cohesion, as well as the swift response in the wake of the shooting, resulted from foresight and planning. After the February 2018 school shooting in Broward County, Fla., LeGrand turned his attention to how to make school safer for 2,100 students and 180 staff members. He challenged his student government association to create a safety training video.
“They got really involved and excited about creating that video,” said LeGrand. “They partnered with the Matthews Police Department and were motivated to make sure that it was thorough. They took the idea and just ran with it.”
When school opened in 2018, LeGrand required all staff members and students to watch the video. “I hope we never have to use this,” he told students and staff. “But if something happens here, we need to be prepared.”
And they were. On Oct. 29, students and staff immediately put their training into action.
“Unfortunately, we had to use everything that we learned from that video,” said LeGrand. “But our staff and students were prepared. Everyone was taking care of each other. No one panicked. I saw students grabbing each other and pulling them to safety. Within 60 seconds, the halls were clear. It was like a ghost town.”
Less than 24 hours after the shooting, staff members who could have stayed home came to work. They took the initiative to come together. So did the students.
“I think the biggest compliment we received in all of this is that the majority of our students returned to school the day we reopened,” said LeGrand. “The trust and the confidence they had in us spoke volumes.”
The day students returned to school, LeGrand had several assemblies so every student could hear from him in person.
“There was a lot of fear and unanswered questions and we literally just had to take it day by day,” said LeGrand. “This is a long-term thing that we will be dealing with for a long time. I was very open with our students about dealing with our emotions. I told them that I would be taking advantage of mental health services and I encouraged them to do the same. This was not normal and we needed to talk about it.”
Immediately after the shooting, Butler was overwhelmed with support from the community. For more than a month, lunch was donated for staff members by local businesses.
An artist volunteered to paint a mural in the school’s cafeteria for free. Cards and letters poured in from as far away as Arizona and Connecticut. Many other CMS schools created banners and posters of support that are now displayed all over the school. “We’ve really had a year full of blessings,” said LeGrand. “It was so encouraging for our school family to know how much people care and want to be part of the solution.”
LeGrand said the support from other schools, the community, parents and employees from all over CMS helped the school work to recover. “I want to thank everybody who supported us,” he said. “Whether you brought us lunch or just prayed for us, it helped. We couldn’t have done it without everybody coming together.”
LeGrand said they will never forget what happened last year. “Our students are dealing with it every day. Our adults are dealing with it every day. I deal with it every day. I told the students there is no end date for grief. So, we should just support each other, love each other and hug each other. It feels good in here. Everyone is looking out for each other.”