Union Co. charter school calls emergency meeting about safety after teacher’s death connected to drug cartel

Updated: Apr. 16, 2021 at 5:40 PM EDT
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UNION COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Monroe Police have increased surveillance and patrols at Union Academy Charter School after a teacher’s death was connected to a Mexican drug cartel.

On April 8, Alamance County Sheriff’s deputies say Barney Harris was shot and killed at a mobile home in Alamance County. Harris was a teacher and coach at Union Academy Charter School.

Alonso Beltran Lara also died after the shootout at the mobile home. Investigators say Lara was believed to be a drug runner for Sinaloa New Generation Cartel. The mobile home where the shooting occurred is believed to be a stash house.

Investigators say Harris and a team of others went to the mobile home on April 8, to steal the drugs and money. Steven Stewart Jr. of Wadesboro was arrested for first-degree murder. Juana Lara is still wanted in connection to the shootout.

Thursday night, the Union Academy Charter School held a special called board meeting to discuss safety and background checks of teachers following the incident.

“We are deeply saddened by his death. The Barney Harris that so many here new and loved was a very different person than the man we heard about in recent news reports,” Head of the school John Marshall said at the meeting. “Everyone on my staff on my team is as shocked as his students are to learn the details of his death.”

School staff and students held a service on Tuesday, April 13 to honor Harris’ contributions to the school and its students. Marshall says it was not until Wednesday morning they learned of the details surrounding his death.

Since the discovery, Marshall says there has been an increased police presence on the school’s campus. Lt. Kris Westover of the Monroe Police Department oversees school resource officers at Union Academy.

“We have also been in contact with Alamance county sheriff’s office. We actually had a Zoom meeting with the sheriff this [Thursday] morning,” Lt. Westover said during the board meeting. “They assured us that everything they have detailed that Union Academy is not a threat for any type of retaliation. That’s one thing they have assured us.”

Marshall says the school has searched Harris’ classroom and desk. He says they did not find any evidence of drugs or weapons. He says they cleared the school of Harris’ belongings.

“We are here, and we are lucky enough to be in the city so if we need more bodies they’re here within minutes,” Lt. Westover said.

Marshall said the school will continue to partner with local law enforcement to provide security at the school. He said they can choose to increase police presence in the future, beyond the usual two school resource officers on hand, if the board chooses to do so.

Marshall explained the school’s process for checking the criminal history of future and current employees. He says before all employees are hired, they undergo a scan for federal, state, and local criminal records. In addition, the school uses a system known as “Guardian” that will alert school administrators if employees have any new run-ins with the law in the state of North Carolina

Marshall says the system is working. The school was alerted by Guardian last fall when Harris was charged with a misdemeanor for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. He was due in court for this charge next week.

“The administration addressed this matter with Mr. Harris at the time of this incident,” Marshall said.

However, Harris was facing another charge in the state of Oklahoma. According to Sequoyah County court records, Harris was charged with possession, deliver, sell or manufacture drug paraphernalia on September 18, 2020. Marshall did not mention this charge in the board meeting, but WBTV asked the school about it Friday.

The district responded with the following statement:

Union Academy’s first priority is always to protect the children entrusted to us and to create a safe place for our students and staff. That includes a comprehensive process that begins before any employees are hired. Every Union Academy employee candidate undergoes an extensive background check before he or she is hired, which includes a search of federal, state, and local criminal records. In addition, Union Academy has technology that searches a list of our employees against North Carolina law enforcement records daily. If there is a match, we receive an email alert. The process worked, and Union Academy received an alert regarding the misdemeanor concealed weapon citation Barney Harris received in New Hanover County, N.C. in August 2020. School administrators immediately addressed the situation with Mr. Harris and took action they believed was appropriate, based on the information available at the time. Union Academy recently learned that the Oklahoma Highway Patrol cited Mr. Harris for possession of a container that included marijuana residue on Sept. 17, 2020. It is important to note that the alert system we use only searches North Carolina records, and Union Academy was not aware of this charge. We are currently reviewing and updating our background check and response policies and processes to determine whether changes are needed. Union Academy is a close community, and we are devastated by the details surrounding this situation. We continue to focus on supporting our students, families and staff now and in the days ahead. Any questions about the investigation should be directed to the appropriate law enforcement officials.

In addition to security, Marshall says they have provided students and staff with guidance counselors. Marshall says they are also working to secure counselors to meet specifically with student-athletes who played for Harris. Harris coached basketball and track at Union Academy.

While it may come as a surprise that a teacher is connected to organized crime, Union County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Tony Underwood says it is not surprising that the cartel has a presence in the state.

“I think it’s safe to say everybody in all jurisdictions have seen connections to the Mexican drug cartel,” Underwood said.

He says the cartel typically sets up distribution centers near cities and interstates, but their operations stretch into rural America too.

“The further away from these distribution centers you go, they have people who are runners distributing narcotics throughout the country,” Underwood said.

Like many counties, Underwood says they have seen an increase in overdoses, deaths, and seizures caused by fentanyl.

“That is a direct link back to the cartel, we believe,” Underwood said.

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