Grieving Butler students urged to wrest good from school shooting death
Hundreds packed Progressive Baptist Church in west Charlotte on Saturday to remember 16-year-old Bobby McKeithen III as a warm, fun-loving Butler High student whose life shouldn’t have ended in his school hallway.
McKeithen, a sophomore at Butler, was fatally shot near the cafeteria of the Matthews school just before classes began Monday morning. Jatwan Cuffie, a 16-year-old Butler freshman, has been charged with first-degree murder.
“We’re going to use this to cause a positive change at Butler High School. ... We have no choice,” Principal John Legrand told an overflow crowd of mourners at McKeithen’s funeral. “We’ve got to take a stand ... that this isn’t going to happen any more to young, special people like Bobby.”
The brief but deadly scuffle between the two students followed a fight in a Harris Teeter parking lot the previous Friday night, in which Cuffie was a participant and McKeithen was a spectator, according to Cuffie’s statement to police and video circulated by classmates.
While a fatal shooting inside a school stunned the community, speakers reminded the group that young people die all too often after conflicts that could have been resolved.
Sheriff-elect and retired police officer Garry McFadden said he regularly speaks to students about “what to do when you have a beef.” On the day McKeithen was shot, McFadden said, he spoke at nearby Independence High.
“Everybody will have conflict, but what the problem is is when you bring drama,” McFadden said. “There will always be conflict, because we are born differently. ... Don’t be the messenger of drama.”
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said she has attended two funerals this past week for murder victims.
“We’re not in a good place in our society,” she said. She urged everyone attending to love and care for each other, and asked students to let faculty know if someone is troubled. “What you do, the students, this is how we’re going to change our world.”
Justin Hill, a cousin of McKeithen, also encouraged young people to love each other and avert conflict. No one wants to be labeled a snitch, he said, but “truth be told, it’s better to be called a snitch than a life be taken.”
SIMILAR MESSAGE AT PROTEST
At the same time Saturday afternoon, 40 people marched in an uptown Charlotte protest spurred by the shooting. They chanted ”Not one more, save ’em all” during a “Stop the Violence, Enough is Enough” march that led from Little Rock AME Zion Church to Marshall Park.
“End the violence, put the guns down,” parent Jasmine Brown told The Charlotte Observer before the start of the march. Her 17-year-old son, Daquavoan Lavar Brown, died Oct. 10 after a teen who was a friend or acquaintance shot him, a case in which no charges have been filed, she said.
“Youth today don’t know how to deal with conflict,” said Gemini Boyd, founder of the nonprofit Project Bolt who organized the march and rally. “They go from zero to 100 – 100 is the violent acts they committed.”
Boyd told the Observer he served prison time for assault with a deadly weapon, related to a 1990 fatal shooting at Myers Park High committed by another youth, as well as additional time for a sep- arate drug conspiracy charge.
His organization helps people released from prison get job skills and housing, and is working with a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools counselor on a town hall-style meeting where students will take the microphone to offer solutions to youth gun violence.
“It hurt so much to see that,” Boyd said of the Butler High shooting. “We’ve got to figure out what to do to prevent it.”
CHANGE THE NARRATIVE
At McKeithen’s service no one made reference to the accused shooter. But Mario Black, founder of Million Youth March, drew applause when he decried news reports that implied that McKeithen was a bully.
“Bobby was not a bully, nor was this his character,” he said. “I challenge the news media to help change the negative narrative.”
Black said both Legrand and Matthews police told him they did not know where the bullying information came from.
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox cited bullying as a possible factor in the shooting at two news conferences that day.
Wilcox, who did not attend McKeithen’s funeral, never specifically accused McKeithen of being a bully and declined to answer follow-up questions about the role of either student in bullying, citing student confidentiality.
McKeithen’s girlfriend, Anna O’Connell, gave the most emotional talk, pausing several times to wipe tears as she described the way McKeithen gave her strength, made her laugh, hugged students with special needs and brought her chocolate and Ibuprofin when she had a migraine.
When she described how McKeithen’s dimples “stood out so much every- body could see them a mile away,” some people laughed fondly while one young relative was led out wailing.
“From this moment on, everything I do is for you,” O’Connell said of McKeithen. “I’m not going to give up.”
WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
McKeithen’s death has prompted CharlotteMecklenburg Schools officials to re-examine questions about how adults in schools should deal with conflict between students and whether the district needs better methods to screen for guns.
The district intercepts several guns in schools every year, but gunfire is rare and this appears to be the first shooting death inside a CMS school. Nationally it was the 22nd school shooting that led to death or injury in 2018, according to an Education Week tally.
“They’re talking about bringing in more metal detectors. They’re talking about bringing in more police officers,” the Rev. Terrance Grooms, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church, said in McKeithen’s eulogy. “Those things sound good, but let me remind you those things won’t work. Our children, you have the power to make your rooms safe (with) what you bring into the classroom. I’m not talking guns and knives, I’m talking attitudes and actions. … Only you can bring the peace back into your classrooms.”
Grooms’ impassioned eulogy brought applause and amens. But the mood changed when the words ended and the coffin was opened for friends and family to pay final respects.
Sobs and wails pierced the sanctuary. Suddenly it wasn’t about school safety or social ills. This was about one 16-year-old.
McKeithen will be buried Monday in New Bern.
Ashley Mewborn, mother of Butler High School shooting victim Bobby McKeithen, is hugged outside Progressive Baptist Church in west Charlotte at the funeral for her son on Saturday. McKeithen, a sophomore at Butler, was shot near the school cafeteria Monday.
Bobby McKeithen, 16, was shot at Butler High School on Monday morning. He died at the hospital.
Jatwan Craig Cuffie
Friends and family are inconsolable after the funeral for shooting victim Bobby McKeithen on Saturday. Sobs and wails pierced the sanctuary at Progressive Baptist Church as the coffin was opened for mourners to pay final respects.
Ashley Mewborn, center, mother of shooting victim Bobby McKeithen, leads the family procession into Progressive Baptist Church for the service. McKeithen will be buried Monday in New Bern.
Pallbearers carry the coffin of Butler High shooting victim Bobby McKeithen from Progressive Baptist Church after services for the 16-year-old student on Saturday. McKeithen was shot at school Monday morning.
Mourners react at the end of Bobby McKeithen’s funeral service. Speakers reminded the group that teens die too often after conflicts that could have been resolved.