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CMS leaders face school gun surge with frustration, fear and small steps toward action

Board member Lenora Shipp, a retired educator, says in her long career with CMS "I have never seen it quite this bad" as far as guns.
Board member Lenora Shipp, a retired educator, says in her long career with CMS "I have never seen it quite this bad" as far as guns.

Superintendent Earnest Winston took small steps toward a plan for keeping guns out of schools Tuesday night, at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting marked by frustration, fear and resolve.

It wasn't the first time guns dominated discussion at a CMS board meeting, in a first semester that’s seen record numbers of firearms in schools. But this one took place the day after a student fired a gun outside West Charlotte High School, and emotions ran high as board members talked about the impact on students and teachers.

Jennifer De La Jara's voice shook as she talked about school staff being forced to wonder who might have a gun and how they'll deal with it.

"Right now we are asking them to be on the front lines of gun control," she said. "Like, let’s just think about that for a minute. That’s what we’re asking our principals and key staff, is you’re on the front lines of gun control."

Her colleague Lenora Shipp said she experienced lockdowns and disruption in her career as a CMS principal "and I have never seen it quite this bad."

Like many of her colleagues, Shipp called for unified action without being clear what that might mean.

"As someone said, we've got to throw the whole kitchen sink at it," she said. "We’ve got to do everything it takes, because it is not acceptable to see any child hurt, injured and maybe even killed."

Winston added a few details to solutions he’s talked about. He said an app that will let students report concerns anonymously will be ready when schools resume after winter break. He talked about hiring more security guards for high schools, without saying how many or when they might be hired.

And he said his staff are talking to companies that make the kind of body scanners used in airports and at sports events. But he still appeared to leave decisions about those scanners to a group of CMS staff that’s studying safety.

"We will determine the funding sources over the next several weeks for what our work group recommends," he said after raising the matter of scanners, metal detectors and wands.

Board member Sean Strain said safety and academic setbacks from remote learning have reached crisis level.

"I, and in fact we, must have a plan and actions to move both of these areas forward," he said. "Substantially. Yesterday."

Board Chair Elyse Dashew said no single strategy will be complete, and all will have drawbacks. As if to prove that point, several people used the public comment period to dismiss the most specific plan Winston has announced: Buying 46,00 clear book bags for all high school students. They’re expected to arrive in February.

West Charlotte High student Malachi Thompson speaks to the CMS school board Tuesday.
West Charlotte High student Malachi Thompson speaks to the CMS school board Tuesday.

One of the skeptics was West Charlotte High School student Malachi Thompson.

"I understand why the board implemented the clear backpacks, but clear backpacks are not either efficient or effective," he said. "Many students have said to me that this will expose their personal belongings, such as their home keys, personal wallets and hygiene products."

He also talked about the trauma of the gunfire at his school, even though no one was hit by what police described as "at least one shot fired" during a fight between two students.

"Students are afraid to be in a learning environment having to look over their backs every second," he said. "Afraid to be themselves, afraid to talk about stuff that they feel important to them. Students are not coming to school; that's a whole 'nother problem. Faculty and staff are afraid to come to work because they feel unsafe."

West Charlotte teacher Ayanna Perry urged the district to hire more social workers and psychologists to help students deal with the stress of the pandemic and violence throughout communities.

"Our kids are dealing with trauma and we need to make sure our schools are equipped to help them," she said. 

North Mecklenburg High School senior Breanna Fowler, the board’s student adviser, said clear book bags and warnings of severe consequences for bringing guns don’t address the underlying cause of the problem.

"Listen to what I’m saying: The students, children, are products of adults," Fowler said. "So we can’t get mad when a student brings a gun, throws a fist, has a fight — this is a cry for help. Our students are suffering right now."

Fowler said she understands students must be removed when they bring a gun that endangers lives, but she wants the focus to be on what’s driving that behavior.

For now, CMS leaders continue to call for help from everyone: Parents checking their kids’ bags, students reporting classmates with weapons and agencies pulling together to reduce violence.

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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.