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Does CMS have a $34 million problem?

When discussing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ proposal to spend $34 million on security, let’s start with what we hope is an indisputable premise: There is no higher priority than our children’s fundamental safety. We’d spend any sum to guarantee a Newtown-like massacre never happens again.

No amount of security upgrades, though, gives that guarantee. That leaves CMS and other school systems having to determine which enhancements would be most effective and how much makes sense to spend for an uncertain payoff.

There’s at least one other gauge, and it’s also hard to measure: What safeguards don’t unreasonably infringe on a school’s environment, turning it from a campus to a prison?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted unanimously Tuesday to ask county commissioners for $33.7 million for security upgrades. The biggest elements: Security cameras in all elementary and middle schools (they’re already in high schools) for $16 million; 8-foot-tall chain-link fencing around school campuses for $13 million; upgraded police radios for $2.5 million; and a buzz-in intercom system at all schools for $1.2 million.

It’s natural, after the horror of Sandy Hook, to review the safety of local schools. Any changes, though, need to not be knee-jerk reactions but the result of a thoughtful assessment of how to truly make students safer.

School safety expert Michael Dorn says the most successful school systems evaluate their situations in great depth before acting. “Make sure you’re having a measured response,” Dorn told the Observer editorial board on Thursday. “Don’t rush out and make major changes because of a single event like Sandy Hook.”

CMS’s plan was cobbled together in the two months since the Newtown shootings. Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain said he plans to hire a campus security consultant to review the proposal to erect fences. Such a consultant might have been valuable in crafting the proposal in the first place.

Parents and taxpayers alike deserve a thorough vetting before county commissioners vote on the plan later this month. Controlling access to schools with an intercom system – in which office personnel have to buzz a visitor in – can be effective, and relatively cheap. Cameras at all of a school’s entries, monitored correctly, also have promise. We worry that tall chain-link fences around every school could have limited utility at great expense while creating an oppressive atmosphere.

Dorn, the executive director of the nonprofit Safe Havens International, points to a solution he says is cheapest and most effective of all: Smart student supervision. Dorn says evidence shows that training school staff to supervise students effectively – having a presence in potential trouble spots and recognizing warning signs among troubled students, for instance – does more than any other single approach. Fences and even metal detectors, Dorn says, have limited effectiveness without well-trained school employees in close touch with the students.

Given the statistical rarity of a school shooting, it’s not clear that CMS has a $34 million problem. CMS leaders need to slow down; they didn’t even know until after they presented their plan to county commissioners that it would delay projects approved by voters in a 2007 bond referendum.

Our kids’ safety is paramount. So let’s approach this in a deliberate, reasoned way.

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