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At CMS' Hopewell High, safety response means scanners, parent patrols and a 'Zen Den'

Hopewell Pickard search.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Hopewell Principal Tracey Pickard (right) checks a student's book bag after a walk-through scanner detected something metal inside.

This school year got off to a rough start at Hopewell High School in Huntersville.

Principal Tracey Pickard says her school — like many in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and across the country — faced teacher vacancies and students who were readjusting to in-person classes.

Pickard says students who were used to turning off their cameras during Zoom classes were showing up with hoodies over their heads and masks covering the rest of their faces. Now the masks are optional, but Pickard still works daily to insist that students keep their hoods down in school — part of an intentional effort to make the school feel safer.

"We just need to see who’s on our campus. We are trying to make sure the right people are in the right space," she said on a recent morning, interrupting herself repeatedly to call out "Drop your hoodie, sir!"

Tensions that started outside school spilled in from the start. The first fight, Pickard says, was on the fourth day of school — and many of the clashes between students had started the previous year or over the summer.

"Every situation, for the most part, that occurred, something happened in remote on social media," Pickard said.

In November, a handful of students started shoving each other. About 30 kids were watching. It was over fast, Pickard says, but "it was my dean that caught my attention and said, 'Something fell out of a book bag.'"

That “something” was a gun. As police investigated, the school determined there had been a second gun on a bus.

It was part of an alarming trend: As gun violence surged among teens and young adults in Mecklenburg County, CMS saw a record number of guns turn up on campus. By the end of the first semester, the district had found 23, including the two at Hopewell. That broke the record for previous full school years.

Fear and resolve

A Huntersville town hall meeting in November drew hundreds of anxious families.

Hopewell Darryl Kelly.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Darryl Kelly

Some parents called for metal detectors and clear book bags, while others urged restraint.

But they didn’t just talk and argue. Soon afterward, about 65 men showed up to launch "Titan Dads on Mission," modeled on a Louisiana program that had sparked national attention. One of them was Darryl Kelly, who has a son at Hopewell.

"This school helped my son a lot. And me," Kelly said. "So I figured I had to return the favor."

On Fridays, Kelly shows up to be on hand when the doors open to students at 6:45, walking hallways and checking restrooms.

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Ann Doss Helms
Darryl Kelly (right) patrols Hopewell's halls shortly after the morning bell has rung.

"For some reason, students like to hang out in the bathroom," he said. "That seems to be the meeting place. So we’ll go there, just to make sure they’re not just hanging out. Just make sure they get to class on time."

Kelly, who works in radiology informatics at Novant Health, says he hasn't had to break up fights. And he says his son has never been afraid to attend Hopewell.

"Bad things can happen anywhere. Doesn’t matter what side of town you’re in, what school location that you’re in, they can happen anywhere," he said.

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Ann Doss Helms
Pastor Mike Moses greets a Hopewell student while keeping an eye on the screen that will flag any metal in book bags.

Mike Moses, pastor of Lake Forest Church in Huntersville, no longer has kids at Hopewell. His church hosted the town hall on safety at Hopewell, and he signed up to patrols with the dads.

"My motivation was to support leadership here and help the school be what the community needs it to be, which is a great place for every kid to get every kind of education," he said on a recent morning while staffing a walk-through metal detector.

"We are not the authority here. We’re not going to discipline anyone," Moses said. "We’re just adding the special sauce of a dad presence, whatever that means."

An oasis of calm

A few mothers joined the patrol, too. But Pickard says the moms really stepped up in December when the school started brainstorming about a place where students could go to calm down and cope with stress.

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Ann Doss Helms
Hopewell's Zen Den provides a sensory contrast to the bustle of school.

Hopewell’s "Zen Den" opened in a former teacher workroom in March. It features soft lighting and comfortable seats. Essential oils provide calming aromas, while a sound machine sets the mood — rain, crickets, a babbling brook or rumbling thunder are options.

Metrographics, a local printing company, donated most of the supplies, with parents and students pitching in. Students helped build some of the furniture.

"It’s a community effort," said yoga instructor Meredith Luber.

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Ann Doss Helms
Parent volunteer Meredith Luber (left) uses Principal Tracey Pickard to demonstrate how she'd offer an anxious student a comfortable seat, a weighted lap blanket and comforting words.

She and fellow Hopewell mother Abbey Ritter, a nurse, keep the Zen Den open every school day as Hopewell students cycle through lunch.

Those who sign up — or are referred by an adult — can choose to draw, color, write, make bracelets or mandalas, play games, do yoga or learn breathing exercises.

"We’ll give them time to reset, decompress, use some of the strategies we have been trying to teach them to kind of get back on track for the day," Luber said.

Volunteers have to learn about how to defuse tension and commit to becoming a regular presence.

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Ann Doss Helms
Material for making mandalas is one of the relaxing activities offered at Hopewell's Zen Den.

"All this is about connecting to the kids and trying to build those relationships and those foundations so that we can have trust and the kids can open up so that we can help them if they are going through something that’s challenging," Luber said.

Pickard said the Zen Den has become so popular she's thinking about creating a second space next year.

"We're not painting everything to be perfect, but it's doing what it was designed to do, for every type of student" Pickard said. "If a student is having a bad day emotionally from home, or emotionally with another peer, they're able to come in here and do the right thing and talk it out or write it out."

CMS rolls out body scanners

Meanwhile, the district was coming up with its own safety solutions. Hopewell was among the first seven high schools to roll out body scanners this spring.

At Phillip O. Berry Academy in west Charlotte, a student was caught going through a scanner with a loaded gun in early May. But at Hopewell, Pickard says, the metal detectors have turned up harmless items.

Hopewell scanner.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
When scanners show a red box over a bag, the student goes to a nearby table to have that bag searched.

"Pretty much it’s binders, metal water bottles, umbrellas," she said.

Students hold their laptops in front of them as they walk through the scanners. If the machine shows a red box that indicates metal anywhere else, students are sent to a table for a search.

Freshman Madilyn Moon was carrying a book bag and wheeling a bag of athletic gear when she was sent to the search table recently.

"Sometimes my bat will make it go off, but besides that, it’s not that bad," she said. She’s skeptical about being forced to carry a clear book bag — "Honestly? I think they’re kind of stupid" — but said she’s OK with the scanners.

"The only thing that’s annoying is the Chromebook, but I get it because I’d rather be safe but be aggravated," she said. "That’s what matters to me, is being safe." 

As the school year draws to an end, the 46,000 clear book bags CMS ordered to issue to high school students remain in a warehouse, their fate undetermined. Pickard says the plan is unpopular with students, but she thinks it could be one more deterrent to bringing contraband to school.

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Ann Doss Helms
Hopewell sophomore Paige Reed is helping start a Students Against Violence Everywhere club at her school.

Meanwhile, the districtwide rollout of an anonymous reporting program called Say Something has inspired Hopewell students like sophomore Paige Reed to start a chapter of Students Against Violence Everywhere, or SAVE.

"It’s also for peers to communicate to each other so they feel comfortable enough to show their vulnerability since we obviously do have problems here and that’s everywhere," Reed said. "So we wanted to be sure that we could solve those problems and share it out."

During the second semester, the stream of guns on CMS campuses slowed to a trickle, with only five confiscated since students returned from winter break. No more have turned up at Hopewell since the November incident. And while students still fight occasionally, Pickard says the atmosphere is calmer.

"And that’s kind of where we are right now: not perfect, but we are definitely making strides," she said.

Her leadership team plans to meet shortly after graduation to plan for the next school year. By then, she hopes her students and faculty can focus on learning with fewer distractions.

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Updated: May 20, 2022 at 10:11 AM EDT
Updated May 20 to reflect additional guns found at CMS schools this week.