With a flurry of safety plans announced late in 2018 in the aftermath of a school shooting, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools families may have expected their children to return to transformed schools this week.
The reality is more subtle and gradual, district officials say.
The most dramatic element of the plans Superintendent Clayton Wilcox announced in November — wanding and bag searches at high schools — won’t roll out until sometime after first semester ends Jan. 18, Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ said Thursday. While schools are focusing on midterm review and exams, district officials are trying to make sure they have staff prepared for screenings that will involve anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 students per school.
The goal, Russ said, is to minimize anxiety, be respectful and make sure everyone knows what to expect, even though students and families won’t know about search plans in advance. The rollout is expected “in the next several weeks,” he said.
“We hope we don’t find anything,” Russ said. “The goal ... is not explicitly to catch someone. It is to deter a potentially tragic event from happening.”
CMS has long relied on student tips to intercept guns on campus, a strategy that resulted in several confiscations every year without incident. But anxiety rose after the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., last February.
On Oct. 29, tragedy struck at Butler High in Matthews, when 16-year-old Bobby McKeithen was shot to death in a scuffle outside the cafeteria and a classmate was charged with killing him.
According to Education Week’s school shooting tally, that incident was one of 24 across America in 2018 that led to 35 deaths and 79 injuries. And those were just the incidents where someone was hit by gunfire.
“In fact, there are many thwarted incidents we never hear about — or students who are taken off the path to violent action well before they would ever act — thanks to committed educators and school counselors who work daily to build meaningful relationships and connect students with the help they need,” Ed Week’s Evie Blad wrote in a piece about the tracking.
Increasing faculty training and adding support staff, such as counselors and psychologists, is part of CMS’ ongoing strategy to improve safety by heading off trouble. But there are also new strategies to counteract shooters and other violence if needed:
▪ Panic alarm cards, which allow employees to send alerts about anything from a fist fight to an active shooter, are being installed and will be distributed first in CMS high schools, then in middle schools, Russ said. Those schools are expected to have the alarms in place this school year, he said, with elementary schools to follow.
▪ Better security cameras, new locks and stronger doors are being installed. “Sharp eyes would notice some of the equipment upgrades,” Russ said, but “I don’t think any of this is going to be dramatically visible.”
▪ Employees are continuing to be trained in “active survival” tactics that can be used if a shooter is moving through a school.
▪ Some campuses will get new fencing. Russ said the district is working with principals to identify the needs.
The district recently created a web page to provide information on school safety, www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmssafety, and plans to start doing more public updates to make sure everyone understands the upcoming searches and other changes, Russ said.