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Charlotte Observer: Delayed Report On Safety At Harding High Raises Ire

Fears about safety at Harding High continued to roil Thursday, after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board delayed a report that had been prepared for Wednesday's meeting. Board member Kaye McGarry accused her colleagues of trying to "sweep it under the rug" when the other eight voted to hold off until Dec. 13, when two new board members are sworn in. One of them is Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who last year was a leader among Harding parents trying to preserve their magnet school. Her son has since transferred to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, but Ellis-Stewart said Thursday she stays in touch with Harding families: "What I hear from students and parents is that there are a number of fights and that the fights occur on a regular basis - just concerns about safety for the kids, a lot of disruption." Last year the westside school was a full magnet that required students to meet academic standards for admission; it was one of the district's top academic performers. This year Harding roughly doubled its enrollment when it added neighborhood students from the now-closed Waddell High and from nearby West Meck. Some students have dubbed the school "West Hardell," and say the merger has been fraught with tension. "People are scared to come to school," freshman Tianna Thomas said Thursday. "Nobody feels safe." After rumors that there would be a shoot-out, she said about 10 students were absent from each of her classes Thursday, and three of her friends transferred. Some CMS officials say rumors have become the problem, and that ongoing attention inflates the sense of threat. Randy Hagler, deputy chief of the CMS police, said the number of criminal incidents has grown at roughly the same rate as Harding's enrollment. Hagler said he'll release an analysis of those incidents next week, but said Thursday his review showed about 33 police cases that have taken place during school hours this year. Those included disorderly conduct, simple assault, possession of knives and marijuana and students reporting thefts of cellphones and music players - things that happen at most high schools, he said. Police and security are now dealing with fears, Hagler said: "We are responding to parents. We are responding to rumors that we're hearing. We're responding to the school board and the superintendent." McGarry, Joyce Waddell and Richard McElrath had asked for a report on the transition at Harding and other schools affected by closings and mergers. McGarry said she asked interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh for a copy of his written report before the board meeting, and he told her it would be on the dais when the meeting began. Vice Chair Tom Tate moved to hold off, and Waddell and McElrath agreed. Both said they visited Harding on Monday to check out reports of problems and want to know more when the new board is seated. Waddell said Thursday their visit yielded "a lot of conflicting information," but she did not see students in danger. There was "an abundance of police officers there," she said. Waddell said she asked the number of students who have withdrawn from Harding since school began, but "it was not available." That's among the information she hopes Hattabaugh will report in December, she said. At the meeting, McGarry asked where the written report was, and Hattabaugh said a staffer had copies. When the board voted to delay its discussion, the report was not handed out. Thursday the Observer requested a copy, noting that it is a public document. Spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry said officials agree, but it won't be ready for distribution to the board and media until next week (today is a holiday). She said the written report is a spreadsheet with data about several schools, not a detailed write-up about issues. McGarry said Thursday she thinks her colleagues are trying to avoid bad publicity and hope people will be distracted by the holidays in December. She said parents and students deserve answers now. At the close of school Thursday, Jimmy Lee Little arrived to pick up his nephew's daughter. He said she doesn't plan to come to school on Nov. 17, the day referenced in graffiti found on campus Monday. The graffiti reportedly said "RIP Harding," a message many have interpreted as a threat. Little said he's worried about recent troubles at the school, which he thinks stem from combining students from rival schools. Some problems are common when CMS changes boundaries or assignments. When North Meck took students from the West Charlotte zone last fall, there were fights and tension, especially when the two schools played each other at North's homecoming. But many say this is worse than usual. John Maye, a community activist who fought the closing of Waddell, says bad blood remains from when Harding and Waddell families clashed over the closings. And the stress is fueled by class and ethnic differences, he said. Former Waddell students mostly come from lower- to middle-income families, he said, while former Harding students tend to be more affluent. The old Harding was mostly African-American, while the Waddell territory includes a large number of Hispanic students. Maye called it "disappointing" that the board delayed talking about how to deal with those issues. "How can teachers teach and students learn when there is this much disarray?" Veronie Gamble, the former PTSA president at Waddell High, agrees the tension is disrupting academics and driving students to other schools. Her daughter now attends South Meck, which picked up part of the Waddell zone. "Not only the parents, but the students as well are very afraid," she said of those who went to Harding. "They really are trying to see whether or not there are other schools to place their students." Ellis-Stewart, the new board member, said some of the new Harding students lack the credits to be on the graduation track. She said she hopes CMS finds alternatives for them so the faculty can focus on "how you get all students to the point that they want to be at school and be part of the learning experience." Eric Frazier contributed. Copyright 2011 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.