DEL CITY — Sometimes when Steve Gilliland is working at his desk at Del City High School, the traffic whizzing by on Sunnylane Road catches his eye and the people passing by pique his curiosity.
“What do they think of this place?” he’ll wonder.
Del City’s head principal knows some folks don’t have a great opinion of his school. In the past nine months, shots were fired during a pair of Del City sporting events, first in January just moments after a boys basketball game against Millwood, then in August during a football game at Choctaw. One person was wounded in the basketball shooting while one person died and two others were wounded at the football game.
In both instances, neither the shooters nor the apparent targets were associated with Del City.
“That doesn’t matter,” Del City counselor Shelby White said. “It gets attached to our high school.”
Even as the football team prepares to begin district play Friday night against Tulsa East Central, outside attention isn’t completely on what’s happening on the field. Del City is widely seen as one of the best teams not only in Class 5A but also in the entire state. Led by third-year head coach Robert Jones, the Eagles have at least half a dozen major-college recruits.
Add in five-star defensive lineman David Stone, a Del City kid who is committed to OU but opted to play his final two high school seasons at IMG Academy in Florida, and Del City has many reasons to feel good.
But since the shooting during the Choctaw game, the focus regarding Del City has been something else entirely. The headlines about the incident say Del City. The stories mention Del City. Not one but two shootings happened when Del City was playing. That leads lots of people to make an assumption — bad things happen at Del City.
That’s what the outside narrative says.
But what about the people who spend their days inside the walls of Del City High School?
“The way everyone views us is not the way we view ourselves or the way we are,” said Danielle Taylor, who in her role as Del City’s Title-I instructional coach is responsible for training and encouraging other teachers. “I think that’s the hardest thing about Del City, that sometimes our kids have to get over the fact that the perception of us out there does not match our reality here.”
White said, “That’s a pinhole looking through the window of what our school is. It is such a small view, not even close to scratching the surface of the culture here and how awesome the kids are and how loving the faculty are.”
Let’s widen that view, tear away the obstruction and get a more complete look at Del City. Come walk the halls of the school. Listen to the people who are here every day, who know the students, who understand the culture.
It might just change what you think about Del City.
Del City High School quarterback River Warren is among several major-college recruits playing for the Eagles, widely regarded as one of the best teams in the state. But their season and their school has been colored by a shooting Del City’s opener at Choctaw. (Alonzo Adams / USA TODAY Network)
‘It’s a small-town feel but sitting in the city’
John Keilty spent 26 years in the Navy and retired as a captain, then spent 17 years at Mount St. Mary as a teacher, coach and athletic director. But when he left the Mount in 2017, he didn’t retire.
He started working at Del City where he leads a robust Junior Naval ROTC program.
Keilty made the move in large part because of Lenny Hatchett, the coach of Del City’s mighty boys basketball program. The two worked together at Mount St. Mary, and Keilty thought highly of Hatchett.
But Keilty quickly learned that Hatchett wasn’t an outlier at Del City.
Keilty recalled the ceremony last spring for teachers who were retiring. The eight teachers had a combined 250 years at Del City.
“I mean, that speaks volumes,” Keilty said.
“Why does a guy like Coach Hatchett that can coach at any other school, that can coach in college, could probably coach in the pros, why is he at Del City High School? Why is Coach Jones at Del City High School?
“The teachers in the school want to be here.”
Chelsea Sims wanted to teach at Del City after being a student there. As one of at least a dozen Del City alums who are now teachers at the school, Sims saw the success of the Special Eagles program for students with disabilities, and she knew she wanted to one day return to her alma mater and lead the program.
The Special Eagles were parts of the school like any other student when Sims was a student, and they still are.
“I’ve had a kid in ROTC. I’ve had a kid play football. I’ve had a kid wrestle,” Sims said.
“One of the students won homecoming a couple of years ago. The student body did that. We did not. It wasn’t fixed in any way, shape or form.”
Every spring when the Special Eagles have their Unified Prom, students can volunteer to help with the event.
“We have to turn kids away,” Sims said. “They fight over who gets to work it.”
Now before you start thinking every student at Del City is perfect, teachers and administrators are quick to say that isn’t the case. The school has its discipline problems, but then, doesn’t every school have its discipline problems?
With more than 70% of students receiving free or reduced lunches, there are socioeconomic issues that sometimes impact the school day. Many students, for example, don’t have transportation, and some are between homes.
“You have to have grace,” White, the counselor, said.
“We still have expectations,” she said. “We still have rules.”
Gilliland, who has worked in the Mid-Del School District for his entire two decades in education, is in his second year as the Del City principal. In the academic year before he became principal, there were 58 reported fights at the school, he said.
Last year, that number dropped to 29.
Still, after the shooting at the football game, Gilliland had people ask him if he was scared to go to work at Del City.
“Do you really think I would go to work if I was scared?” he told them.
“I have never been scared one time,” he said. “I don’t get scared whether I come to work at 5 o’clock in the morning or whether I’m leaving at 2 a.m. like the night of the shooting.
“I tell people all the time, it’s a small-town feel but sitting in the city.”
That’s not about the building, the brick and mortar. Rather, it’s about the people. The adults and the kids. The students and parents. The teachers and staff.
No one knows that any better than Shelby White.
Del City High School counselor Shelby White experienced the love and care of students and staff at the school when she was diagnosed with brain cancer last year. (Jenni Carlson/Sellout Crowd)
‘We take care of our own’
Shelby White missed the first day of school last year.
She was getting an MRI.
Not long after, she would be diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery and chemo would follow.
“Last year was a lot,” White said. “I lost all my hair. All the kids knew I was sick.”
She missed a couple weeks of work after surgery, then would be gone three days at a time when she had chemo, and whenever she came back, she always found notes from students on her desk. She would call them in.
“I wasn’t here yesterday,” she’d say. “What did you need?”
“I was just coming to check on you,” a lot of them would say. “How are you doing?”
White nearly tears up recalling those moments.
She has the same strong emotions for what her co-workers did for her.
“Had I worked anywhere else last year, I wouldn’t have been able to probably continue my job,” she said as she sat across the desk from Gilliland in his office. “We take care of our own. I never came back to being behind. If I was gone, they just took it.”
“We’re fortunate here for the most part,” he said. “We’re all on the same page.”
One of the murals inside Del City High School includes the names of feeder schools scrawled in the roots of a tree. It’s a reminder of strength of community. (Jenni Carlson/Sellout Crowd)
‘It’s not like you’re just getting these calluses’
Walk the halls at Del City, and you’ll see walls covered in murals.
One is painted with colorful flowers and butterflies and peace symbols. In the middle, two hands are clasped together under the words “Stronger together.”
In another part of the school, a painting of a giant tree stretches from the first floor to the ceiling of the second floor. The roots of the tree have names scrawled on them. Parkview. Epperly Heights. Townsend. Kerr. Del Crest. Del City Elementary. Highland Park.
Feeder schools to Del City.
“I love that,” White said as she looked up at the mural titled “What mark will you leave behind?”
All of the hallway murals have been done by students. Every year, the graduating class gets to pick a spot, a theme and a design, then the students work diligently on them for days. It’s important for the class. It’s a way to leave a lasting mark.
Honestly, such things are important to lots of high school students. They want to resonate. They want to matter.
And yet, White knows some folks look at the kids walking the halls at Del City differently. She’s seen the comments on social media. She’s heard them in other parts of the Oklahoma City area.
“Oh, that shooting won’t faze those Del City kids because they’re used to it. They’ve seen things like this before.”
She shakes her head.
“No, it stacks their trauma,” she said. “It adds to it. It’s not like you’re just getting these calluses where being a part of a horrible, traumatic event like that doesn’t affect you.
“Our students were very, very impacted.”
Down another hallway, instead of a mural, there are colorful sticky notes scattered around the wall. A sign says, “TAKE WHAT YOU NEED,” and each of the notes offers encouragement or help.
One simply says, “988,” the national mental health helpline.
Others say, “You can do it” and “Trust yourself” and “You are enough just as you are.”
But there on a pink sticky note is a message that is perfect for Del City High School, a message that the people inside the building have already taken to heart.
“Don’t let one thing make you forget about the good things.”