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CMS' history of gun safety actions shows protecting schools isn't as easy as it sounds

Ann Doss Helms
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a dog trained to sniff out guns in book bags. He's used in random screenings at middle and high schools.

Superintendent Earnest Winston’s current effort to combat a surge of guns in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools isn’t the district’s first go-around on the issue.

This is, after all, a generation of students born after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School made lockdown drills a routine part of the school calendar. Educators have become accustomed to training on how to deal with an active shooter at school.

Winston’s predecessors have also faced pressure to fortify schools. Some responses have brought lasting change, while others sounded reassuring but proved impractical.

“Every solution will be partial. Every time we roll out a solution it will be (only) a part of the solution,” board Chair Elyse Dashew said at Tuesday’s meeting, after Winston reported on his strategies. “And it will have drawbacks. Every solution is going to have its drawbacks.”

For instance, as guns on campuses reached record levels this school year, Winston spent almost $442,000 to order 46,000 clear book bags for high school students from a local Office Depot. When the order arrives in February, they’ll be distributed to students at no charge and students will be required to use them, the district confirmed Wednesday.

The idea is to make it harder for students to sneak guns into schools.

“And that’s a key initial step because many of the guns that were reported and found on our campuses have been in backpacks,” Winston said Tuesday. WFAE had requested details on each of the 23 firearms found on school grounds this year, but that information has not been provided yet.

In other locations, clear backpacks have been rejected as impractical and unpopular. CNN reports that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, announced that the bags would be required in 2018, after a former student fatally shot 17 people there, but dropped the plan before school started. Students ridiculed the plan, NPR reports, and many argued there would still be plenty of ways to slip a gun onto campus.

At Tuesday’s CMS board meeting, several people who took part in public comments after Winston’s report disparaged the idea of requiring clear bags. One suggested the money could have been better spent on wands or airport-style scanners.

Screen students at the door?

After the Parkland shooting, Kerr Putney, who was chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department at the time, urged then-Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to scan all students and adults before allowing them to enter schools. Wilcox resisted, saying the disruption to the school day that would come from trying to channel students through a few scanning points wasn’t acceptable.

But after a Butler High student fatally shot a classmate inside the school in October 2018, Wilcox said he’d give universal screening a try. CMS bought equipment, trained staff and purchased a gun-sniffing dog, but the district never got farther than doing bag and classroom searches at small selected locations. The time and staff required made clear the challenge of daily searches at schools that, in some cases, top 3,000 students.

Those random screenings continue, and Winston says he’s doubled the frequency this school year. CMS says the only gun found during these searches was at a summer school site in 2019.

Meanwhile, current CMPD Chief Johnny Jenkins isn’t pushing like his predecessor did.

“So logistically I don’t like the look. I would not like my kids to have to go through metal detectors to go to a school,” Jennings said Monday at West Charlotte High, after a student fired a gun on school grounds. “But the safety perspective of having those are much more important to me, so I would be accepting if that’s something the school board and superintendent decided to put in place.”

Winston says a group headed by Chief Operations Officer Brian Schultz and CMS Police Chief Lisa Mangum is looking at prices for wands, scanners and airport-style scanners, and all those options are “on the table.” But he hasn’t offered any clues to how such options might come into play.

Too slow to act?

Some board members have urged Winston to be quicker and more specific in his plans to improve school safety, even as he’s also trying to produce academic plans for counteracting the setbacks from last year’s remote learning.

On Tuesday he said he plans to launch an app for students to anonymously report guns and other problems when classes resume after winter break. He said it can’t be done sooner because staff need to be trained on how to respond. And he said he plans to increase security guards at high schools, but didn’t say when or how many.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether board members were satisfied by Tuesday’s report.

“In my opinion, we are in an academic, safety and a cultural crisis in our schools. And as a board member I want to see actionable steps for our administration to take to turn this around,” board member Rhonda Cheek said at the meeting.

But while many members talked about frustration and the need for bold leadership, they also emphasized that CMS needs help from students, parents, other government bodies and community groups.

Winston became superintendent in August 2019, after Wilcox was forced out. As a top aide to several previous superintendents, he saw them make lasting changes and costly missteps in response to community fear.

Fences and panic alarms

For instance, one of Winston’s first acts as superintendent was to introduce a panic alarm system that Wilcox bought after the Butler shooting. In the coming months, that system turned out to be unreliable, and CMS eventually got a partial refund on the purchase.

In 2013, after a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, then-Superintendent Heath Morrison proposed enclosing school campuses with 8-foot chain-link fences to prevent armed intruders from getting in. He even got money from the county to do it. But that plan was scrapped after neighbors said they didn’t want their schools to look like prisons and other people weighed in to say it would do more harm than good if students and staff couldn’t easily escape a campus or first responders couldn’t get in.

CMS designs new schools as single buildings, which controls access. West Charlotte High, for instance, is scheduled to move out of its sprawling, multi-building campus in August, trading it for a new 100-classroom building on the same site. But it’s unclear how long any school can stay contained, as enrollment growth often creates clusters of mobile classrooms.

Lasting changes

Other safety measures are harder to gauge — partly because they haven’t been put to the test of an armed attack. In recent years CMS has retrofitted front offices to make them more bullet-resistant, added security cameras and improved the systems for alerting and communicating with police in case of emergency.

One of the most obvious changes has been access to schools. Until the last few years, visitors could generally walk up to a school and find doors unlocked. Now they have to buzz in with a speaker at the main entrance, and doors of other buildings are more likely to be locked. Winston says he’s continuing to look at safety improvements to buildings and grounds, but he hasn’t given details.

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Corrected: December 17, 2021 at 11:21 AM EST
An earlier version of this story had an incorrect job title for Chief Operations Officer Brian Schultz.
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.