The number of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students caught with drugs and guns at school rose in 2015-16, as did the number of assaults on school staff, a new state tally of school crime and violence shows.
The state requires public schools to report 16 criminal acts, which range from rape and assault to possession of drugs, alcohol and weapons. The vast majority of reported incidents, in CMS and across North Carolina, are nonviolent.
The report being presented Wednesday to the state Board of Education shows incidents in CMS are above state averages and rising, even when growing enrollment is factored in.
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9.4 criminal/violent incidents per 1,000 students in CMS last school year
6.6 acts per 1,000 students statewide
5.3 acts per 1,000 students in Wake County schools
3 acts per 1,000 students in Mecklenburg charter schools
CMS officials said Tuesday the numbers reflect a community where violent crime is rising, a school system that puts extra officers in schools and a school culture that encourages students to report potential dangers.
In 2015-16, CMS reported 10 guns confiscated and 15 students charged with their possession, the highest level since 2007-08. The numbers are on track to be even higher in 2016-17, with 11 guns confiscated during the first semester.
“I’d sure rather be getting a tip” that leads to confiscation of a weapon, Superintendent Ann Clark said. “I certainly don’t want guns on our campus, but I’m grateful that our kids are willing to step forward.”
The state’s rate of reported incidents per 1,000 students dropped from 6.89 in 2014-15 to 6.62 in 2015-16. Meanwhile, the CMS rate rose from 8.3 to 9.4 per 1,000 students, with a total of 1,371 criminal or violent acts logged last school year.
Unfortunately, it’s not very difficult to find a gun.
Lisa Mangum, deputy chief of CMS police
School resource officers and campus security guards are “very aggressive in documenting the incidents,” while other districts often have fewer security staff in schools and may file fewer reports, said Lisa Mangum, deputy chief of CMS police.
But Annette Albright, one of the CMS employees who was assaulted by students last year, says the problems are real and even underreported.
“There were staff that were afraid of students,” said Albright, who lost her job as a behavior modification technician at Harding High when she was hit by students after she tried to get stragglers to go to class. Cellphone video of the brawl went out on social media, and four students were later charged.
In Wake County Public Schools, the only district larger than CMS, the rate of all incidents dropped from 5.9 to 5.3 per 1,000 students.
Mecklenburg’s charter schools, which are public schools run by independent boards, reported much lower rates of crime and violence, averaging 3 acts per 1,000 students for the 26 schools located in the county.
In charter schools, as in CMS, reports varied widely by school. Lake Norman Charter School, a large and highly regarded north suburban school, had a rate similar to CMS. Sixteen of the 26 charter schools reported no incidents, as did 52 of 164 CMS schools.
The North Carolina General Assembly mandates the report, which also looks at suspension, corporal punishment and dropout rates, because crime, violence and discipline problems detract from academic success. In some cases, the report says, education officials can improve education by making schools more safe and orderly.
“Sometimes correlations occur not because one factor causes another, but because an underlying factor causes both,” the report continues, citing factors such as poverty and family conditions.
Younger and younger children are presenting with trauma. We are the first line of seeing it and responding to it.
Marion Bish, CMS student services
CMS leaders say the problems may come from the wider community, but others are helping with solutions, too. Marion Bish, executive director of student services, said Mecklenburg County commissioners have provided money to have mental health counselors from outside agencies – including one that serves Spanish-speaking families – stationed in 95 schools. All schools do formal assessments when students threaten to harm themselves or others, and therapy for the student and family can be provided at school.
“Younger and younger children are presenting with trauma,” Bish said. “We are the first line of seeing it and responding to it.”
The tally can include incidents that have little or nothing to do with school safety. For instance, the state’s only death at school by other than natural causes was reported at Lawrence Orr Elementary in east Charlotte. It involved an adult found shot to death on the playground at night; no one associated with the school was involved.
Guns at school
With 15 reported gun possessions, CMS accounts for far more than any other district. Second was Robeson County schools with six. Wake County, the state’s largest district, found only one gun.
CMS schools with guns reported were Myers Park High (three students); Butler, Garinger and Rocky River high (two students each) and one student each at Ardrey Kell, Hough, Mallard Creek and West Charlotte high schools and Northridge and Ridge Road middle schools.
Assaults on staff
Assaults on school personnel rose in CMS and across North Carolina.
Assaults with weapons or assaults that cause serious injury are reported separately, whether the victims are students or employees. CMS reported two assaults involving weapons but no serious injuries, at West Charlotte High and Reid Park Academy, a K-8 school. The West Charlotte incident “involved a student and staff member” and the Reid Park incident came from “an altercation between two students,” Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block reported.
A fist fight at Vance High that sent a student to the hospital led to three students being charged with assault causing serious injury.
For CMS, the total of 301 assaults on employees was a three-year high, though there were more during the three school years before that, when the district was smaller.
Wake reported only 46 assaults on staff. Cumberland County had 210, and because it’s roughly one-third the size of CMS, that’s a proportionally higher rate.
Lincoln Heights Academy, a CMS alternative school for students with severe behavioral and emotional disabilities, accounted for 49 of the CMS staff assaults. Others with the highest numbers were Sterling Elementary with 22; Garinger High, Northeast Middle and Piney Grove Elementary with nine each; and Lebanon Road Elementary with eight.
CMS officials say they’re training school employees in cultural competency, which can help head off student anger and frustration, and in techniques to de-escalate conflict so it doesn’t lead to physical force. Metro School, which serves students with severe physical and mental disabilities, has traditionally logged high numbers of staff assaults, but dropped to three this year. District leaders cited that as an example of successful decisions that reduce lashing out.
At Sterling, CMS reported that one-third of the 22 reports involved one student, and one involved a parent who assaulted an employee.
Albright, the former behavior technician at Harding, says CMS needs to do more to support staff. The confrontation that led to her assault near the end of last school year came after students refused to disperse and Albright’s call for backup went unanswered, according to a letter from Albright’s lawyer and another from an assistant district attorney who reviewed CMS police reports.
The letter from lawyer Michael Elliot to CMS says Albright had raised “potential security issues” and slow responses from security several times before the June incident. She has filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor.
Drugs lead the list
Possession of controlled substances – a category that includes illegal drugs and unauthorized possession of prescription drugs – account for the largest number of offenses in CMS and statewide. State numbers ticked down slightly over the previous year, while CMS’ tally rose from 534 to 624, the highest number since the state began tracking 15 years ago check.
The total for CMS, the district’s second-largest district, was more than first-place Wake (310) and third-place Guilford County (278) combined.
The CMS police department bought a drug-sniffing dog last year, which began doing random school searches this school year. Officials say that could lead to even more cases in 2016-17, though they hope his presence will deter students from bringing drugs on campus.
CMS schools with the most reported drug possessions were Garinger High (50), West Mecklenburg High (47), Rocky River High (41), Independence High (33), Butler High (30), Mallard Creek High (28) and Hopewell and Myers Park high (26 each).
Less lethal weapons
Possession of weapons other than firearms – for instance, knives and BB or pellet guns – were the second-largest category in CMS and statewide. The CMS total was virtually flat, with 319 in 2015-16 and 315 the year before, while state numbers dropped significantly.
The CMS total was similar to that of Wake County, which had 310 reported weapon possessions.
CMS schools with the most weapon possessions were West Mecklenburg High (18), Rocky River High (15), Garinger High (14), Harding High (13), Mallard Creek and West Charlotte high (12 each) and Myers Park and South Mecklenburg high (10 each).
Highest rates in CMS
These are the CMS schools with more than 25 total criminal or violent incidents reported per 1,000 students in 2015-16. Lincoln Heights Academy and Turning Point Academy are small alternative schools that serve students with behavioral issues.
Lincoln Heights: 490 per 1,000
Turning Point: 70.1 per 1,000
Garinger High: 44.4 per 1,000
Sterling Elementary: 39.9 per 1,000
Rocky River High: 38.3 per 1,000
West Mecklenburg High: 37.6 per 1,000
Martin Luther King Middle: 36.3 per 1,000
Harding High: 30 per 1,000
Hopewell High: 29.9 per 1,000
Eastway Middle: 28.5 per 1,000
Martin Middle: 26.4 per 1,000
Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction