Education

CMS will use electronic wands and bag searches to keep guns out of schools

CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox: From one perspective we failed

Charlotte Mecklenburg Superintendent Clayton Wilcox says that the system does not check every students bags each day and that they will be reviewing procedures following the shooting death of a Butler High student on Monday, October 29, 2018.
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Charlotte Mecklenburg Superintendent Clayton Wilcox says that the system does not check every students bags each day and that they will be reviewing procedures following the shooting death of a Butler High student on Monday, October 29, 2018.

Starting in January, Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students will arrive at school to find unannounced security teams wanding them and searching their bags to make sure they aren’t packing guns, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox announced Friday.

The searches, done at randomly selected schools on a regular basis, were among the most dramatic points in a list of safety enhancements Wilcox unveiled. The changes follow a fatal shooting at Butler High on Oct. 29 and gun incidents at four more CMS high schools in the ensuing three weeks.

The random checks by wands are an alternative to walking each student through fixed metal detectors, which had also been considered. Students’ backpacks will also be randomly checked by security officers, Wilcox said. The wanding will start in high schools after winter break and expand to middle schools at an unspecified date.

Among other measures Wilcox announced: more camera monitoring; deployment of thousands of panic cards for teachers; strengthened communications between schools and parents; and hires of additional guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists.

“CMS will not tolerate weapons brought onto campuses,” Wilcox said in a briefing that CMS streamed on its Facebook page. “The district will enforce the maximum penalties in the Code of Conduct and will cooperate fully with law enforcement when weapons are brought on campus.

“This community has to get a grip on guns that are obtained illegally or legally obtained by an adult who didn’t care enough to lock it up.”

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney has called for wanding everyone who enters schools at any time, but he said the measures announced Friday are a practical start.

“This is what can be done at this minute,” he said. “This is a good first step in my opinion.”

CMS Board Chair Mary McCray said she understands there’s public demand for setting up permanent metal detectors at schools, but she doesn’t think proponents understand how difficult and time-consuming that would be at large schools on open campuses. High school students, whose classes start at 7:15 a.m., would have to arrive around 6 a.m. if they all had to walk through airport-style screening, she said.

Wilcox said wand searches, which are already done at sports events, take three to five seconds per student. CMS officials will select which schools will be targeted each day, he said, and a team of CMS security staff will show up with wands to check everyone entering. Police officers will be on hand to disarm students if the search turns up guns or other weapons.

Wilcox said a metal-detecting wand costs under $300 and CMS has already ordered 50. He said he’s also considering requiring or offering clear plastic book bags, but hasn’t made a decision on that.

Random searches can’t guarantee that no weapons will get onto campuses, but Wilcox and McCray said they hope the searches, coupled with maximum penalties for anyone caught bringing a gun, will send a strong message.

The location of the recent gun incidents illustrates the difficulty of predicting where problems will arise: Butler is in southeast suburban Matthews, while students were found to be carrying guns at Garinger High and East Mecklenburg High in east Charlotte and Hopewell High in north suburban Huntersville.

On Tuesday Olympic High in southwest Charlotte went into lockdown after students reported threatening social media images of classmates with guns. Three students were later arrested off campus and charged with possession of a handgun; CMS Police Chief Lisa Mangum said investigators believe “the gun at one point or another was on the campus of Olympic.”

CMS has been beefing up safety measures since the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. Those efforts have included stricter enforcement of procedures on screening visitors and keeping school doors locked, as well as conducting “active survival” training on how to respond to an armed attack. Mecklenburg County commissioners provided $9.2 million for additional safety features such as panic alarm cards, fencing and better security cameras.

Wilcox, who started the job in July 2017, had resisted any measures he thought would distract from learning or create a prison-like atmosphere. But he said Friday that “the time has come for additional action to keep guns out of schools.”

CMS has set up a safety website, www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmssafety, that includes details of the new plan and will provide updates.

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