With school safety high on people’s mind as classes began Monday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ only scare highlights the challenge of heading off hazards.
Since last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., political debate and student protests have focused on efforts to deter school shootings. But the only incident CMS reported Monday was a stranger who accosted a parent and her six-year-old daughter at a bus stop near Highland Renaissance Elementary in north Charlotte.
The parent said the man, who officials believe may have come from a homeless encampment nearby, grabbed the girl by the arm and pulled on her, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police reported. As the parent grabbed her child, the man began to assault her, police said. The man then walked away but returned and exposed himself.
Responding officers quickly arrested Ronnie Darrel Carr, 46, and charged him with indecent exposure, sexual battery, assault on a child under 12 and attempted kidnapping.
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said at an evening news briefing that the incident was serious, but represented one “hiccup” in a mostly smooth first day of school. About 148,000 CMS students, along with thousands of others in charter schools and districts around the region, started the 2018-19 year Monday.
Another rough spot: Some CMS buses were an hour or more late to school in the morning, and anxious parents were still waiting after 6 p.m. for their kids to get home. Delays are common during the first few days of school, especially in a district with about 100,000 riders.
“My students got out of school at 4:15 p.m. and according to the ‘bus app’ they are nowhere near our home at 6:06 p.m.,” tweeted Tamra Jones, a Piedmont Middle School parent. “This is outrageous. Surely, we can do better.”
Wilcox said the last bus was scheduled to leave school at 4:15 p.m. and the district hoped to have all children home by 7 p.m. As schedules are firmed up in the coming weeks, students should be home by around 6, he said.
Parents were understandably focused on the details of their children’s first day. But for the broader public, three questions will shape the state of public education in the coming year.
1. Will schools be safer?
While Mecklenburg County commissioners approved about $4.5 million this summer for CMS to “harden” buildings, don’t expect to see new fences or obvious physical changes. Some of the improvements are still in planning stages, and others, such as security cameras and film that makes windows less likely to shatter if shot, won’t be visible.
While Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney has worked closely with CMS on safety improvements, the chief has not gotten his wish to have metal-detector wands at entrances to all schools.
CMS is focusing on school procedures, such as more rigorous use of existing sign-in systems, that will protect students. That caused some frustrations Monday morning, as schools required all parents to use the LobbyGuard check-in. Some schools saw backups that prevented parents from walking their children to class.
Principals have been trained on “active survival” tactics over the summer, and that should start filtering through to students. The goal is to practice strategies that are more likely to save lives than the traditional “lock the doors and sit in the dark” lockdown drills.
CMS is also conducting a “Circle of Safety” campaign to inform parents, students and community members about their role, and a #ThinkBeforeYouPost push to discourage social media threats that can distract from learning and lead to student arrests.
2. Where will the students land?
With enrollment flattening and even starting to drop in some areas, the competition among Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, charter and private schools is fierce. This year brings the opening of three new CMS schools and two new Charlotte charter schools, along with assignment changes at almost half of CMS’ 175 schools.
Schools that come up short could lose teachers — and in the case of charter schools, may struggle for survival. District schools with unexpectedly high enrollment may have to add teachers, haul in trailers and/or convert stages and other space into makeshift classrooms.
Don’t expect answers right away. Enrollment remains in flux for the first few weeks of school, as new families trickle in and schools notify students who are on waiting lists that they can claim seats. The first tallies are likely to land in late September or October.
3. Will teacher activism change classrooms?
Teachers in CMS and across the state have mobilized en masse to speak up not only for better pay but for an array of changes they say would make life better for their students, from more counselors and teacher assistants to better funding for classroom supplies and building maintenance.
They’ve frequently been at odds with the Republican majority in the General Assembly who control much of the money for education. There has been talk of further protests and even strikes like those seen in other states last school year.
On opening day, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox reported 42.5 teacher vacancies. That means some students will start the year with substitutes, but it’s a relatively low vacancy rate for a district with about 9,000 teachers.