MATTHEWS, N.C. — Tuesday is a somber day for parents, students and staff at Butler High School in Matthews.
A year ago, a fight between two students in the hallway ended with gunfire that took the life of 16-year-old Bobby McKeithen.
The shooting happened as the 2,000 students at Butler were getting ready for class.
A school resource officer rushed to the scene, called 911 and put the campus on lockdown. Within 10 minutes, 16-year-old Jatwan Cuffie confessed to a teacher and surrendered to police.
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Police said the shooting stemmed from an off-campus fight between Cuffie and McKeithen.
In the hours of chaos that followed, anxious parents who'd been told to wait at nearby Elevation Church instead marched to the school to get their kids.
Channel 9 followed those parents and documented dozens of emotional reunions.
For the first time, Bobby McKeithen's father allowed cameras into his home and spoke exclusively with Channel 9 anchor Allison Latos. Bobby McKeithen Sr. said his son was mild, laid back and relaxed -- and always made the effort to call.
McKeithen Sr. was in New Bern when the shooting happened and dropped everything to rush to Charlotte, where he learned his son died.
“When it hits your own front porch it’s a whole different thing, a whole different feeling,” he said. “There's still those nights where I can't sleep. There's still those nights where I cry. When I pick up the phone and hit his number by mistake.”
McKeithen Sr. said he had to learn to forgive his son's killer.
Cuffie reached a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and is serving a little more than 6-and-a-half years in prison.
Butler staff, students and their parents were also traumatized from the shooting on campus last year and have spent the months since recovering and growing.
"It's definitely something that's always in the back of our mind," principal John LeGrand said. "It's a part of who we are."
Since McKeithen’s death, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has made security changes, not just at Butler, but across the district. It implemented random wanding of students, backpack searches, cameras and more communication.
There have been physical changes through security, but also emotional changes. Students will focus on kindness as they enter the high school Tuesday morning.
That message is posted on a sign outside the school. The principal said that virtue has helped them get through this tough year. To reflect that, students will wear black t-shirts that read “B KIND.”
Students started the day by holding hands around a flagpole outside the school in what was called a remembrance gathering.
"I've challenged our staff, I've challenged our kids to come in and let's be as kind and uplifting and encouraging to each other as we can possibly be," LeGrand said. "Because we saw what the opposite of that can cause."
Throughout the day, students wrote notes to one another with compliments and messages of encouragement. There was also an opportunity to write messages to McKeithen's family.
"I think everything was handled everything really, really well," student Tessa York said. "It’s just such a hard situation to go through that everyone’s been doing the best that they can and that’s been really nice."
The state superintendent launched the North Carolina Kindness Campaign, inspired by the strength and resiliency of the students at Butler.
Channel 9 reporter Gina Esposito spoke with CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston before schools started Tuesday morning, as well as LeGrand.
"This day is really student-led,” Winston said. “It's about them putting forth the effort to show each other kindness, and members of our community kindness. We're very proud of our students and the effort they are leading today.”
"We're also moving forward in a very positive and unified way, and that has resulted in our day of kindness,” LeGrand said. “I've challenged our staff, I've challenged our kids to come in and let’s be as kind and uplifting and encouraging to each other as we can possibly be."
LeGrand said over the past year, students have sought professional help to cope with tragedy, so school officials made sure they had five additional counselors on campus Tuesday.
Cox Media Group