By Ben Rappaport
Jessica Scott was overjoyed to see her son, Nakoma, be honored during the Lumberton High School football team’s Senior Night. She donned a T-shirt with No. 28 emblazoned on the back and beamed with pride alongside the dozen family members and friends who came to the game to watch her son.
But for the Scott family, football became the last thing on their minds when gunshots rang out during the game’s third quarter on Sept. 8.
“It sounded like they were right behind me,” Jessica Scott said. “All you’re thinking in that moment is ‘Where are my babies and how can I get them safe?’”
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Lumberton police said Tuesday they have charged 11 people – four adults and seven minors ages 15 to 22 – in connection to the shooting in the stadium’s parking lot.
No one was injured, but the shooting rattled the players and the 1,000 fans there to see the Lumberton Pirates take on the cross-county Red Springs Red Devils. For many families and students, it was another instance of celebration tainted by gun violence.
Robeson County had the highest violent crime rate in North Carolina in 2021, with 1,417.1 incidents per 100,000 people in 2021, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. That was more than three times the statewide rate and marked a 21% increase from the prior year. Lumberton, the county seat, regularly lands on travel websites’ lists of the “most dangerous” cities in North Carolina.
The shooting this month marks the second time in less than a year that gun violence interrupted a football game in Lumberton. A 41-year-old woman was critically injured in a shooting on Nov. 16 during a middle school championship game played at Lumberton High. Video footage showed the young players running off the field after shots rang out.
Following last year’s incident, Public Schools of Robeson County said the district would increase security and lighting for football games.
Tom Taylor, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, said he was on the football field on Sept. 8 as a member of the chain crew. He said he used his skills as a volunteer fire chief to help usher players and fans into the nearby fieldhouse as quickly as possible.
Despite what the numbers say, Taylor said he believes Robeson County is just as safe as other parts of the state. The bigger issues, he said, are parental responsibility and the excess burden placed on local police and the sheriff’s office.
“It starts at the home,” Taylor said. “Parents need to know what their kids are doing and make sure they don’t have access to guns in the first place.
“We have some of the best policemen and sheriffs around who do all they can,” he said. “But they have so much to do that they can’t control it all.”
Guns in schools remain a concern throughout the state. North Carolina has seen 54 incidents of gun violence in schools over the past 10 years, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. Of those, 13 shootings occurred during a sporting event, resulting in eight people wounded, data shows.
Across the country, the database shows a large spike in shooting incidents on campuses since the pandemic. There have been 245 school shooting incidents this year, more than in 2018 and 2019 combined.
The number of children killed by gunfire in the United States jumped 50% between 2019 and 2021, according to the Pew Research Center.
In Robeson County three eighth-grade students were suspended in April for bringing a handgun to Orrum Middle School. During the 2021-2022 school year, there were nine incidents of guns in the county’s schools, including three found at elementary schools and three at Lumberton High.
Meanwhile, at least 16 people under the age of 18 have been charged with shooting offenses in Robeson County in the past 12 months, Sheriff Burnis Wilkins told the Border Belt Independent in June.
“In our county, we have juveniles committing murder and other very serious crimes,” Wilkins told the BBI in a statement on Wednesday. “While there may be programs for them to avoid incarceration, some of these juveniles are too violent to be free. Sadly, the streets and peer pressure make some of these teens think it’s cool to have a gun and shoot.”
A rocky season
Calling Lumberton’s 2023 football season a roller coaster would be an understatement. The team has lost all five of its games so far, including a forfeit due to injury. The team has dealt with young players, a new coach and weather delays. The shooting during Senior Night was another gut punch.
“On a beautiful night of love and joy, players cry and want to know that their families are OK,” Lumberton Head Coach Dennis McFatten said in a statement to the BBI. “Sad that this will be a lasting memory.”
Since the latest shooting, the school district has implemented several new safety measures, including increased lighting and more police officers at sporting events. The district’s five high school principals agreed to put in place a policy that says elementary and middle school students must be accompanied by a parent or guardian at all high school events, The Robesonian reported.
“These senseless acts will not be tolerated and the safety of our student athletes and fans remains our top priority,” schools spokeswoman Jessica Sealey said in a statement.
Lumberton High will also install security cameras to record activity in the parking lot. Lumberton police officers will patrol the parking lots during football games and discourage attendees from loitering.
Scotland County Schools announced Wednesday that the district is implementing similar safety procedures for football games, including increased law enforcement presence, additional lighting and limits on loitering outside the stadium. Students must present identification to purchase tickets, and elementary and middle schoolers will need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Scotland schools spokeswoman Meredith Bounds said the changes were not made in direct response to the shots fired at Lumberton High School. At Scotland High School’s recent home football game, there was a large fight at the stadium, Bounds said.
“The changes that we’ve implemented for football games going forward were precipitated by the altercation,” Bounds told the BBI in a statement. “They also came about as a result of what is happening in society as a whole.”
Capt. Vernon Johnson, spokesperson for the Lumberton Police Department, told the BBI the Sept. 8 shooting “was not random,” and two groups involved in the gunfire were intentional in their targets. Police did not say the incident was gang related, but some people in the community say that was likely the case.
“It’s still safe to go to a ballgame,” Taylor, the county commissioner, said. “These sorts of things don’t just happen in our county. All we can do is teach kids and try our best to stop it.”
Leon Burden, who founded the Colors of Life gang-prevention organization in Robeson County, told the Carolina Center for Public Service in 2021 that public officials and community members are quick to dismiss the prevalence of gang violence in the community. But its toll is undeniable, he said, and children need support early on. “After we find out what is drawing you to the lifestyle, then we can overcome those obstacles and put you in a better place,” Burden said.
Sheriff Wilkins agreed with Burden that youth violence prevention requires a proactive approach. He said, however, families too often give up on young people, which makes teen gang violence so pervasive.
“Law Enforcement action isn’t the answer to getting a juvenile back on track,” Wilkins said. “It starts far before it reaches us, but if their own families are giving up on them, where do they turn?”
The Sept. 8 game was halted in the third quarter, and play resumed the next day without fans in attendance.
McFatten, the Lumberton coach, said his players deserved a win.
So when the Pirates scored a touchdown in the final 28 seconds thanks to a scramble by senior quarterback Travon Moore, there was no question he would go for the game-winning two-point conversion, instead of the extra point.
But the gamble didn’t pay off. The Red Springs defense stuffed the attempt and won the game 19-18.
McFatten entered his first year as head coach with a motto: “Build the Ship.” He said this season is about building players to become leaders on the field and in the community. He says it’s a motto that speaks to the resilience of players.
“Football is a game of life,” McFatten said. “All these young men know adversity, and all we can do is help them to overcome it — they’ve certainly done that.”
Two weeks after the shooting, the Pirates were back in front of the home crowd to take on Jack Britt High School out of Fayetteville. Fans entered the stadium to additional security guards who scanned everyone with a metal detector wand.
The game flowed without issue. Many in the stands said they had no fear returning to watch their children play. Brad Tyson, a parent who was also at the game when the shots were fired, said he’s seen firsthand the toll violence can take on young people and wants to ensure his son has a different path.
“I’ve had my own experience in the streets,” Tyson said. “And around here a lot of people have seen that type of violence.”
The latest shooting, he said, “was a teaching moment.”
This story has been updated from its original version to include additional comments from the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and Scotland County Schools.