What CMS will do to prepare for armed attack – and where Wilcox draws the line

CMS superintendent says 'heart is heavy, mind is active' after Florida shooting

Five years ago, CMS embarked on a $19 million plan to fortify schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Now Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who has held the top job less than a year, is reviewing everything from physical security to safety protocol
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Five years ago, CMS embarked on a $19 million plan to fortify schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Now Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who has held the top job less than a year, is reviewing everything from physical security to safety protocol

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will do more “active shooter” drills, including one that will be taped and shown to all school employees, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Friday.

Since the Feb. 14 mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Wilcox said he’s gotten calls from hundreds of parents worried about their children’s safety. He said he is reviewing everything from physical security to safety protocols.

“We can’t guarantee that some madman, some evil person isn’t going to come onto our campuses,” he said at a news conference. “But we’re doing all we can to make sure we not only react to that but do the best we can to prevent it from ever happening.”

At a special meeting on school safety Tuesday, students from several CMS high schools said they want to be better prepared in case a shooter comes to their school. Some called for drills that would let students practice how to save themselves and classmates.

Wilcox said watching a video of a shooter drill will give employees “a sense of what that feels like,” but said he will not allow student involvement. “I don’t think that any student should be put through the trauma of seeing armed officers going through their school,” he said.

CMS, like districts across America, is grappling with a new round of questions about school safety. Calls abound for everything from arming teachers to barricading campuses against intruders.

Five years ago, CMS embarked on a $19 million plan to fortify schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Locking systems were installed on the main doors at all schools that require an ID card or authorization from inside to get through.

But when Wilcox tried to assure employees that locking system was in place, teachers at Alexander Graham Middle School noted that their outside doors remained unlocked. The principal there says the locks malfunctioned, then fell out of use at a bustling campus that has almost 1,500 students using five buildings.

“You can kind of get comfortable, and then you have to go back to strict safety protocols,” Principal Robert Folk said this week.

A difficult balance

Alexander Graham’s situation highlights central challenges for policymakers:

How much money and energy should go into erecting physical barriers, which are only one part of a safety plan?

How can schools be both welcoming to their community and fortified against attack?

And how can CMS devise plans for a district with 176 schools, each with a different physical setting and school culture?

Today’s schools are designed to keep students in one building with controlled access. But many older schools sprawl across college-like campuses. And many newer ones quickly spill into “trailer villages” to handle growing enrollment, forcing even the youngest children to walk outside to restrooms and cafeterias.

Five years ago then-Superintendent Heath Morrison proposed spending an additional $13 million to put 8-foot chain-link fences around schools where students have to move between buildings. That plan was scrapped amid practical, aesthetic and financial concerns.

Alexander Graham, in Charlotte’s Myers Park neighborhood, abuts Selwyn Elementary and Myers Park High, all of which have students, parents and volunteers coming and going. After the Florida shooting, Folk reactivated the locks on the most accessible doors, but several others around campus remain unlocked.

Folk addressed the safety question in a letter to parents sent two days after the Parkland shooting. He cited a large number of staff and volunteers who keep an eye on the school and noted that the front office has a “panic button” to alert police of an emergency.

“Putting a figurative (and literal) fence around our schools is a way to make us feel safe. However, the true nature of being safe requires a more personal and political movement,” he wrote. “We must work on the behalf of every child to prevent or treat conditions that lead to hateful, violent behavior. We must monitor and act upon situations that spew negative energy and negative thoughts. We must teach and embrace kindness, positive thought, and generosity toward oneself and others.”

One of the teachers who complained about the unlocked doors said Folk’s response is appreciated, but it’s still too easy to get into Alexander Graham’s classroom buildings. “I don’t think anyone’s naive enough to think a locked door is going to prevent a tragedy,” the teacher said. “But it’s something.”

Not always outsiders

While mass shootings are horrific, schools are much more likely to encounter guns brought in by students – generally not with the intent of opening fire, but to protect themselves, impress classmates or settle a beef that originated outside school.

Every year administrators and police officers stationed in schools safely disarm CMS students, usually tipped off by other students who learned about the gun on campus.

The state just released a report showing that CMS intercepted 19 guns at 12 elementary, middle and high schools last school year. None resulted in a shooting.

That’s why educators and students alike say teachers, counselors and officers who have relationships with students provide an important line of protection.

The question of whether more of them should be armed and trained to shoot back has sparked fierce debate.

Wilcox suggested asking the General Assembly for more armed security officers, while state Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County suggested that school staff be allowed to carry guns to school and “have a chance to defend their lives and those of their students.” President Donald Trump later suggested that teachers willing to carry guns and defend their students should be offered bonuses.

Asked about armed teachers at Friday’s news conference, Wilcox didn’t hesitate.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” he said. “To me it just seems like one of those solutions that’s thrown out there without any thought.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms