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How Dadeville High School is coping after a shooting at a Sweet 16 party

Candles with the names of the four young people killed in a shooting and teddy bears dressed in graduation caps sit outside the Mahogany Masterpiece dance studio on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Dadeville, Ala.
Kimberly Chandler
/
AP
Candles with the names of the four young people killed in a shooting and teddy bears dressed in graduation caps sit outside the Mahogany Masterpiece dance studio on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Dadeville, Ala.

Updated April 24, 2023 at 8:10 AM ET

The hallways and cafeteria at Dadeville High School — known for being filled with laughter and chatter — were eerily quiet this past week as students in the Alabama town grappled with the aftermath of a mass shooting at a classmate's Sweet 16 party.

"Just walking into the lunch room, it was like you were in a library," Chris Hand, the school's principal, said.

During the first few days of classes, only about half the student population, which ranges from grades 6-12, showed up to school. According to Hand, some were still in the hospital recovering from the attack. Others were grieving. And some students stayed home because the shooters were still at large.

Dadeville High is less than a mile away from the dance studio where gunfire broke out during a birthday party on April 15. Four people were killed and 32 others, largely teenagers, were injured.

Philstavious Dowdell was a star athlete who recently committed to playing football at Jacksonville State University next school year.
/ Chris Hand
/
Chris Hand
Philstavious Dowdell was a star athlete who recently committed to playing football at Jacksonville State University next school year.

Those who lost their lives were Shaunkivia Nicole "KeKe" Smith, 17; Philstavious "Phil" Dowdell, 18; Marsiah Emmanuel "Siah" Collins, 19; and Corbin Dahmontrey Holston, 23.

Dowdell, who is the older brother of the birthday girl, and Smith, were seniors at Dadeville High. Holston was also an alum, according to Hand.

Arrests began on Wednesday, four days after the attack. In total, six people have been charged with reckless murder in connection to the shooting — all of whom are under 21. Police have not yet disclosed any information about a motive.

Dowdell was voted Mr. Dadeville High School by his peers, Smith was a role model to middle schoolers, Hand recalls

Dowdell was popular among his peers, so much so he was voted Mr. Dadeville High School at homecoming last fall, Hand said. But what made Dowdell stick out to his principal was that he was one of the few students who would wave and greet Hand during lunch.

"He smiled and he waved every single day," he said. "That's just him."

Similarly, the principal recalled Smith was "friends with everybody" — adding that middle school students in particular admired Smith for her outgoing nature.

"She spoke to everybody, that much I can remember," Hand said. "She didn't meet a stranger."

Dowdell and Smith were also talented athletes in a range of sports. Both students also had a passion for volunteering with the younger teams, according to Hand.

Shaunkivia Nicole Smith, in the center, was known for her outgoing personality and being a role model to younger students.
/ Chris Hand
/
Chris Hand
Shaunkivia Nicole Smith, in the center, was known for her outgoing personality and being a role model to younger students.

This year, he became especially close with the two students through track and field. On the Friday on the eve of the shooting, they traveled together to a competition where Hand, the coach, and Smith, the manager, watched Dowdell win first place in the 100-meter dash. Before the three parted ways, Hand told them "Be safe, have a great weekend and see you Monday."

"I'm so glad that we had that meet because I was able to be with one last time at a track meet," he said.

The start of a long healing process

Over the past week, mental health counselors, pastors and therapy dogs visited Dadeville High to offer their support.

Hand has not yet addressed the school formally about the shooting, admitting he hasn't found the right words. But students and staff have yet to ask for answers or an explanation, either. Hand suspects it is because they are mainly looking for a safe space to grieve.

"In some cases, you're not trying to guide, you're just trying to listen. I think that's where it begins," he said.

That was especially true for a senior on the track and field team who walked into Hand's office. The student stood there, not uttering a word. Instead, he reached into Hand's arms and hugged him. Then the student left, Hand recalled.

Five more weeks are left of the school year. The principal's goal is to slowly return to some normalcy though he anticipates it will take a long time.

"I think that's our main goal and main responsibility to continue to support and continue the process of healing," he said.

Over the weekend, funerals began for the four victims. Dowdell's service will be held on Monday at the school's auditorium at the request of his mother, according to Hand.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.