Fences, cameras, panic alarms: CMS school safety plan gets county’s vote of confidence

Charlotte East Language Academy, a K-8 school that opened in August at the old Eastland Mall site, will be the first school featuring the new CMS comprehensive safety system.
Charlotte East Language Academy, a K-8 school that opened in August at the old Eastland Mall site, will be the first school featuring the new CMS comprehensive safety system.

From new fences at sprawling high schools to security cameras monitoring mobile classrooms, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox on Tuesday outlined the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plan to make schools safer in the aftermath of mass shootings.

Mecklenburg County commissioners had approved the $9.2 million plan this summer, but held half of it in reserve until Wilcox presented details. On Tuesday they voted unanimously to release the money.

“It sounds really pretty exciting,” said Commissioner Jim Puckett.

Among the items outlined Tuesday are:

A panic alarm card system that will let individual employees send signals ranging from a student fight, which would summon school administrators, to an active shooter, which would alert emergency responders.

Classroom cameras that can provide detailed, real-time information to police in case of an attack. Wilcox said the system, modeled on one in Gwinett County, Ga., can also be used to help develop teachers’ skills, presumably through monitoring.

Digital video cameras that will replace analog video to provide clearer coverage and monitor more areas. Wilcox said 13 schools have already been upgraded. The plan is to start with high schools and middle schools, he said. But the plan also calls for more exterior cameras at elementary schools to monitor mobile classrooms and playgrounds.

New “limited fencing” at some high schools, designed to deter intruders and discourage students from leaving campus. However, Wilcox noted that the district has avoided fencing entire campuses in a way that could leave students and faculty trapped if a shooter got in.

Wilcox said Charlotte East Language Academy, a K-8 neighborhood/magnet school that just opened in east Charlotte, will be the first school to feature the comprehensive new safety system, including classroom monitoring.

Beyond that, it’s still not clear which schools have gotten or will get improvements as part of the plans to “harden” schools developed in the aftermath of the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. After a former student killed 17 students and teachers, students in Charlotte and across America rallied for safer schools and better gun control.

An eight-page document attached to the commissioners’ agenda includes some lists of schools, but it wasn’t always clear how they matched Wilcox’s description. For instance, he said three high schools have gotten new fencing, but the list names four scheduled to get fencing this fall: South Mecklenburg, West Mecklenburg, Harding and Garinger.

The list says CMS is enhancing video surveillance this fall outside all 19 large neighborhood high schools and Hawthorne Academy of Health Sciences, a smaller magnet high school. A news release from CMS says 13 schools, which are not named, have already gotten new or retrofitted camera systems.

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In public appearances after the Parkland shooting, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney urged CMS to add metal-detector wand screenings for anyone entering schools. Wilcox and the school board chose not to pursue that option.

The plan presented Tuesday does not mention bulletproof doors and film designed to prevent windows from shattering when shot, items Wilcox had mentioned when talking about possible safety projects last year.

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County commissioners acknowledged the difficulty of predicting where threats might arise, prioritizing schools for improvements and deciding how much information should be made public.

“We have to find a balance,” Wilcox agreed.

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