Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools showcased its latest safety measures Wednesday, from panic alarms that trigger automatic lockdowns to a German shepherd trained to sniff out guns in classrooms.
With a new school year looming and fear of gun violence fresh on everyone’s mind, CMS leaders summoned reporters to Charlotte East Language Academy Wednesday to see what the district will do to protect students come Aug. 26.
The demonstrations included an automated lockdown that was triggered when a staffer pushed a new panic alarm card. Those cards, which look like a regular ID badge, will be in all CMS high schools this year. Administrators and the CMS police department can instantly see the location of the person who triggered the alarm.
The alarm cards trigger voice warnings and color-coded flashing lights throughout the school, for events ranging from bad weather to an active shooter.
Earnest Winston, the district’s new superintendent, is also the father of two CMS students. He knows families want reassurance after a brutal year that included fatal shootings at Butler High and UNC Charlotte, a rising homicide rate in Charlotte and two mass shootings over the past weekend.
"Charlotte East Language Academy is virtually the CMS beacon of what a school with enhanced security and safety measures look like," Winston said of the eastside K-8 school. "The beauty is that an individual would not be able to detect those measures with the naked eye."
Winston listed some other measures that may be hard to spot: Video surveillance targeting playgrounds and mobile classrooms, better locks, stronger doors and more staff trained to help students escape or even fight back if a shooter comes to school.
In high schools, where random gun screenings started last year, some additions will be easy to spot. CMS Police Chief Lisa Mangum introduced what Winston described as "our furriest, friendliest addition."
Nico is a two-year-old German shepherd who started work during summer school. He proved himself by alerting on a gun brought by a student at Rocky River High. This fall Nico will be making the rounds with his handler, CMS detective Tim Jolly, who showed reporters how Nico could sniff out an unloaded gun planted in a book bag.
Nico doesn't bark or snap. He just sits when he encounters the smell of gunpowder. Mangum said CMS believes they're the only district that has its own dog to sniff out firearms.
Last school year CMS officials say they intercepted 17 guns on school grounds, including the summer school find and one that was used when one Butler student fatally shot another after a weekend scuffle in October. Former Superintendent Clayton Wilcox launched the random searches of students' bags after a spate of gun incidents followed that shooting.
At the time the searches were done with wands. This year's screenings will include mobile walk-through metal detectors.
Mangum said the district rolled out two portable metal detectors out during the summer.
"They were very successful. It eliminated a lot of time. It was very quick, and it enabled us to not use the total number of staff that it normally requires when we are doing just wanding," she said.
The random gun searches will also extend into middle and K-8 schools this year.
Winston said alarms, dogs and metal detectors still aren’t enough to keep students safe. He said CMS has added nearly 60 counselors and social workers to help students work through conflict without violence. And he said parents should remind their children to tell a teacher if they see anything that makes them uncomfortable.
"We must all work together to keep weapons out of our schools," he said.