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A year after a gun surge in CMS, things have changed for the better

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

A year ago Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was in the midst of a gun crisis, with more firearms found on campuses in the first semester alone than in any previous full school year.

Just before winter break in 2021, a student fired a gun on the grounds of West Charlotte High. No one was hurt, but it was the 23rd firearm discovered at CMS schools since August, breaking district and state records before the year was halfway done. By the end of the year the total for CMS hit 30.

This year looks very different: As of Friday, two guns have turned up. One was at Julius Chambers High in October, and one was detected when a student walked through a body scanner at West Meck last week.

Chief Operations Officer Brian Schultz says CMS has also seen a decline in other weapons, such as knives, pepper spray and tasers.

Schultz says the anxiety created by last year’s surge of guns and the demands of dealing with incidents drained time and energy from education.

“The exciting part of all this is when you think about how much more time our administrators, our teachers, our school resource officers are spending now building relationships and (engaging) directly in academic outcomes,” he said last week.

CMS has taken a number of steps in the past year to keep guns out of schools.

“The obvious one, I think, is the weapon detection systems. We have now completed installation in K-8, middle school and high schools, 68 schools right now and about 160 units installed,” Schultz said.

CMS has spent $14.7 million with Evolvfor those walk-through detectors, which are supposed to flag guns and other weapons without requiring people to remove change and keys, like they do at airports.

The district also launched a Say Something system that allows students to anonymously report potential dangers. And all schools are providing programs to help students find better ways to deal with anger and fear.

There have also been safety missteps, like last year’s $442,000 purchase of 46,000 clear backpacks, which were later auctioned offas surplus for $85,000 rather than being distributed to high school students.

Gun storage message in the CMS parent-student handbook
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Gun storage message in the CMS parent-student handbook

School board Chair Elyse Dashew cited another change this year, one she says was not highly visible but could be important.

“If you look at the first page of the parent student handbook we have a full page that is dedicated to safe gun storage,” she said.

That’s designed to keep guns out of the hands of children and teens, regardless of whether they bring them to school.

Dashew and Schultz both say student behavior seems to be settling down, after a national surge in fights and violence that followed school closures and the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s clear that gun violence in the community hasn’t gone away. Last month, a 17-year-old CMS high school student was shot to death shortly after getting off his afternoon bus, and two teens have been charged.

“Obviously what we want and what we should all demand and expect is for our youth to be safe no matter where they are,” Dashew said. “And that’s not the way it is right now.”

She says five newly elected board members and four who are returning are united in keeping safety as a top priority. “We’ve really got to continue efforts and if anything step up efforts to work with community members to reduce violence in the community, because it has a ripple effect into our schools. And vice versa.”

Last year no one could say for sure why so many students decided to bring a gun to school. And it’s hard to be sure why students are not doing that as often this year. That’s why Dashew and Schultz both say they’re relieved to see the trend reverse, but they’re not getting complacent.

“You feel good because you’re in a much better place and we’re happy with that,” Schultz said. “But we celebrate a little bit and move on. Like we move on to the next thing.”

For instance, CMS has a $2.9 million grant from the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools to provide active shooter response kits for each classroom. Those include items that can be used to barricade doors or break windows for escape, Schultz says.

Collinswood Language Academy and Harding High are piloting a system that coordinates badge access and cameras at school entrances, so any unauthorized entry will send an immediate video feed to key personnel.

“If someone’s coming in through a location that they’re not supposed to be, then we can respond more quickly. And in any active situation seconds matter,” Schultz said.

CMS students go on winter break Tuesday. When they return for the new year, CMS officials hope students will continue making good choices about keeping guns and other weapons out of schools.

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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.