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CMS slows clear book bag plan, prepares to put body scanners in seven high schools

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Lisa Worf
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WFAE
Hopewell High parents and students came to a town hall meeting in November to discuss concerns about guns and safety.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has 46,000 clear book bags in its warehouse, but Superintendent Earnest Winston said Tuesday he’s slowing down the plan to hand them out.

CMS saw a record number of guns at schools during first semester and faced an outcry to step up safety. For instance, a November town hall meeting in Huntersville drew a crowd of parents from Hopewell High, some of them calling for metal detectors, clear backpacks and other measures to keep guns out of schools.

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CMS
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CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston

Winston ordered almost $442,000 worth of clear book bags, saying they’d be distributed and required at all high schools. A district spokeswoman said they'd arrived by early February and would be given out that month.

But faced with skepticism and questions from students and educators, Winston told the school board Tuesday he’ll pilot the book bags at Hopewell High and Cochrane Collegiate Academy, a combined middle/high school in east Charlotte.

The goal, he said, is to "take the learnings from that initial implementation and roll that into the overall implementation later this spring."

Winston said samples will go out to all high schools.

"One of the pieces of feedback we have received is that students would like to actually touch and feel and see what the clear backpacks look like," he said.

Wednesday afternoon CMS communications director Eve White said the pilot will help the district figure out the logistics of distribution, as well as follow-up matters such as what happens if a student loses the bag or refuses to use it. The plan for distribution at all high schools will not be set aside, she said.

Slowdown in guns

CMS found 23 guns on school grounds in the first semester, breaking the record for any previous full academic year.

Since students returned from winter break in January, the district says there have been two more. White says they were at West Charlotte and Harding high schools.

White said there's no clear explanation for the apparent decrease in guns at school. It comes as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reports that gun seizures and gunshot cases in the community are rising in 2022.

Body scanners at seven schools

Winston also said CMS expects to sign contracts this week to put body scanners at seven of its 19 large high schools: Hopewell, Mallard Creek, Garinger, Harding, West Charlotte, North Mecklenburg and Julius Chambers. He said they’ll probably be installed over spring break in mid-April.

Winston's 6 1/2-minute safety report was short on details. On Wednesday CMS spokesman Eduardo Perez described the scanners as "exactly like the system used at Bank of America Stadium — walk right through and the scanner detects weapons and other suspicious objects."

White said the cost and manufacturer will be disclosed after the contracts are signed.

Winston told the board that a request to use federal COVID-19 money to pay for them was denied. He said CMS will use capital outlay funds, which are generated from things such as cell tower leases, payments from easements and revenue from surplus items the district auctions off.

He said the other high schools will get scanners in two more phases at an unspecified time.

Security guards, bag searches and Say Something

Winston said CMS is hiring 53 more campus security associates to help with safety and behavior issues.

He said CMS has received about 500 tips on Say Something, an anonymous reporting system introduced about a month ago in middle and high schools. The system, which includes an app, website and phone line, lets students report potential dangers without being identified.

The reports go through an outside source and are forwarded to police and district officials if a credible danger is reported. White said CMS has no details about whether any of the tips have involved guns.

Winston added that CMS has done 60 random bag searches at schools this year. No guns have turned up. "But some of the things that we are finding are vapes, tasers, over-the-counter prescription medication, as well as pepper spray," he said.

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Updated: March 9, 2022 at 4:36 PM EST
Updated with additional information from CMS.
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.