Barely two weeks after a gunman mowed down students and faculty in Parkland, Fla., Hough High School in Cornelius had created a video showing students strategies to survive such an attack.
“While I realize this may be scary for you, I think it’s important that we discuss this and do the training on active shooting,” Principal Laura Rosenbach says in the video. “I swear I hope it never happens, but I think that the more you know the better prepared we can be.”
Hough students then demonstrate such “run, hide, fight” tactics as climbing out windows, barricading a classroom with desks and arming themselves with improvised weapons such as a wooden stool and scissors.
In the eight months that followed, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders have talked a lot about preparing schools for “active survival.” But so far only 11 of the district’s 176 schools have done the employee training, according to CMS Police Chief Lisa Mangum.
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“CMS needs to train all staff to the same standards to reduce confusion and chaos during an actual emergency,” CMS parent and safety consultant Carolyn McGrath wrote to the Observer.
Since a fatal shooting at Butler High in Matthews on Oct. 29, followed by a spate of gun incidents at other CMS high schools, district leaders have been under pressure to do more and do it faster. Accelerating the pace of active survival training is part of the plan Superintendent Clayton Wilcox unveiled Nov. 16.
“No one should ever have to worry about their student, their wife, their brother, their sister, their husband, a loved one being in harm’s way at their school,” Wilcox said. “Yet here we are.”
CMS recently hired a retired police detective to coordinate active survival training for school staff, according to Mangum.
CMS has not provided the list of schools where staff have been trained. However, McGrath and CMS parent Kim Riddle provided a list Riddle got from Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on Nov. 14, which was verified by the officer who sent it. It says the schools that have received CMPD training are South Mecklenburg, Myers Park and Mallard Creek high schools; Quail Hollow Middle; and Mallard Creek, Piney Grove and Lansdowne elementary schools. The CMPD list also includes “Coulwood Elementary” (Coulwood STEM Academy is a middle school) and the Smith Family Center, a former school now used for various CMS services.
The email from Officer Jonathan Frisk also notes that all CMS school resource officers have been trained, as have faculty at several private schools.
Butler High students and faculty, working with the Matthews Police Department, made an active survival video after the Parkland shooting, said senior Skyler Graham, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council. That group of students from several local high schools is advising Wilcox on safety.
Active survival training, which is sometimes called active shooter training, encourages people to think about how they would respond to a mass shooter. The labels vary — the Hough video talks about “run, hide and fight,” while Charlotte-Mecklenburg police use “avoid, barricade and counter” — but it boils down to looking for possible escape routes, thinking about ways to make a hiding place secure and preparing to fight as a last resort.
No CMS school has had to use such strategies. Most guns are confiscated without being fired. Even at Butler, the 16-year-old accused of shooting a classmate went to a teacher and turned over his gun immediately afterward.
But ever since the Parkland shooting, in which 17 students and faculty were killed and another 17 injured by a former student shooting an AR-15 assault rifle, some local students and educators have asked for training to help them survive if they ever face such an attack.
According to a tally of school shootings conducted by Education Week magazine, 22 American schools have had shootings resulting in injury or death in 2018. Most are listed as individual disputes, often at athletic events. But in addition to Parkland, two others involved seemingly random shooting and multiple casualties.
“It’s definitely important that we be ready to handle that situation should it arise. I think it’s been made clear that it could happen to anyone,” said Emma-Katherine Bowers, a junior at Myers Park High and a member of the Youth Council.
McGrath, the safety consultant, said CMS needs to work with police and mental health experts to plan the best way to get students involved. “It is critical to implement safety drills that are sensitive to age levels and special needs students, to reduce anxiety and trauma,” she said.
Wilcox said last week that he plans to make an “active survival” video available for students and faculty to watch. He has said in the past that he would not hold active shooter exercises with students because of the possible trauma.
In the Hough video, the principal uses the opportunity to remind students of the important steps they can take to head off school violence, from keeping school doors locked to letting faculty know if they hear a threat or see something troubling on social media.
“If it’s in the middle of the night you can email me, you can do whatever you need to do, you can call the Cornelius police or call 911 if you think it’s a viable threat,” Rosenbach says.
That’s a theme sounded by Wilcox, educators and students: It’s better to prevent violence than react to it. And the most effective way to do that comes from relationships between students and adults, and from routine safety practices followed rigorously.
Graham, the Butler senior, was among many students telling Wilcox they want more counselors and psychologists who can work with students who might be troubled to the point of violence.
“In the past, it’s been more focused on the survival,” Graham said. “We want to say, ‘Let’s get rid of the reason for them to bring a gun in the first place.’ “