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On pace for a record number of guns found in schools, CMS board searches for answers

So far, 18 guns have been found on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools campuses this school year.
So far, 18 guns have been found on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools campuses this school year.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston sent a message to parents and staff Friday outlining steps the district is taking and considering to increase safety at schools, particularly when it comes to guns. He didn’t give many details, but CMS board members say they’ll push him to do so before the end of December.

In his message, Winston wrote that the district is facing “a crisis of student aggression and violence.”

So far 18 guns have been found on CMS campuses or buses this school year, including two this past week. Not even halfway through the school year, that’s quickly approaching the district’s record of 22 found in the 2018-19 school year.

Parents have been pushing for answers and coming up with their own, too. At a packed town hall for Hopewell High School families last month, parent David Mullaly asked the superintendent for a timeline.

"Let’s focus on the real issues so no one has to lose a kid the next time there’s an argument in a hallway," Mullaly said. 

Winston wrote the schools have doubled the number of random safety screenings, and he has a team working on implementing an anonymous reporting tool for middle and high school students. He also wrote the district has ordered clear backpacks for high school students, but they won’t be delivered until February. It’s not clear if those backpacks will be required.

Winston spoke generally about other topics, such as metal detectors and wands. He didn’t say he wanted them in schools, but said district officials have spoken with companies that manufacture them.

CMS board chair Elyse Dashew says the board has been pushing for action and she’s glad to see the superintendent move forward. However, she said he needs to take some concrete steps.

"Or at least we need to know specifically what’s the plan, when is X going to happen, when is Y going to happen," Dashew said. "We need those concrete details within the next couple of weeks, I think. Before 2021 ends."

Board member Sean Strain said that platitudes are not sufficient and that Winston "owes the Board a very aggressive and specific action plan and demonstrated progress."

The problems go beyond guns. According to CMS data, high schools are finding other weapons at a higher rate at high schools. Through the first quarter of this year, the district has reported 63 students with weapons in their possession that weren’t guns. There have also been higher numbers of assaults on school staff — 32 in high schools during the first quarter.

Board member Lenora Shipp says many of the ideas Winston mentioned were suggested by parents at the Hopewell town hall meeting, but his staff had already been considering them. She says the board wanted to get the word out to the public.

"Or at least we need to know specifically what’s the plan, when is X going to happen, when is Y going to happen. We need those concrete details within the next couple of weeks, I think. Before 2021 ends."
CMS board chair Elyse Dashew

"I think we definitely want to see urgency and action," Shipp said. "I think we’re definitely all saying we need to be doing more, and more quicker." 

Board member Jennifer De La Jara said she thinks CMS should have put out more information sooner, but said she thinks Winston was trying to put together a comprehensive response.

"We have responded urgently with some of these initiatives, like increasing the safety searches and trying to create a culture around encouraging everyone to say something," De La Jara said.

Winston’s message didn’t mention adding campus security staff — but that’s come up a lot with parents. Board member Rhonda Cheek says some on the board are pushing the district to use COVID relief funds to pay for them. She says she’s frustrated with the district’s pace.

"I have a huge sense of urgency. Parents have a huge sense of urgency," Cheek said. "And I know staff cares and understands the seriousness of this concern with the school safety, but I think many times we get bogged down in bureaucracy."

And the reality is it’s hard to hire people. Board member Carol Sawyer points out there’s a staffing shortage including among law enforcement.

She says the district has been taking lots of steps over the past several years to increase safety, including lockdown training and drills, as well as random screenings. She says she’s satisfied with Winston’s response so far.

"I think we should be deliberate in the actions we take because I think it’s important that the actions we take are meaningful and not just safety theater," Sawyer said.

Several board members said this is a community problem that requires community solutions. De La Jara said not just the superintendent, but elected officials have been working to craft long-range solutions.

"We can’t do it alone and we want the city and the county — and our municipal partners, not just Charlotte, everyone — to be engaged. And us to call the community to really address this," De La Jara said.

Winston alluded to that in his message. He said he had a meeting this week with the district attorney, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and city and county leaders.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.