Dogs and airport-style metal detectors are now part of CMS gun-search plan

Police dogs that can sniff out gunpowder and airport-style walk-through metal detectors have been added to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ plans to screen high school students for guns, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Tuesday.

His unscheduled report to the school board came in the wake of a student being shot Monday after he got off a CMS bus in west Charlotte.

On Oct. 29, a Butler High student was fatally shot inside the school, and Wilcox, who had resisted calls for gun searches, announced in November that security staff using metal-detector wands would start searching students as they entered randomly-selected high schools in January.

“Quite honestly, the shooting at Butler changed the game in this community,” Wilcox said, lamenting that this week’s shooting, even though it didn’t happen at school, “put CMS right back in the crosshairs of a discussion that is painful for all of us.”

Wanding all students as they arrive will require at least 30 trained adults and is expected to take an hour or more, Wilcox told the board.

“We’re really afraid that we’re going to eat into instructional time that we can’t afford to give away,” he said. “Any time you pick a large high school with 3,000 kids you’re into an hour, hour and a half, no matter how you look at it. ... We really have a window of about 30 minutes in the morning that we’d like to confine this to.”

Wilcox said CMS will bring in portable walk-through metal detectors to supplement the wanding in hopes of speeding the process. He said the first such search, at a school yet to be determined, will happen during the last week of January, and he’ll report back to the board in February on how it went.

Chief of staff Laura Francisco also outlined two other search options CMS will test. In one, the district will do a similar search but only at one building on a large campus.

The third option will use police dogs trained to sniff gunpowder. Students in a handful of classrooms will be asked to step outside the room, where they’ll be wanded. Their bags will remain inside and the dog will go in to check them.

Wilcox said his staff is trying to devise strategies that will be effective without disrupting education or creating undue stress for students. He noted that screeners will be trained to respect privacy and modesty — for instance, female students can request screening by female staff — and no students will be singled out once a school, building or classroom is selected.

“We have to make sure that we avoid kind of that stop-and-frisk mentality,” Wilcox said, referring to police tactics that often target African-Americans. “... We’re not looking at someone who’s got a sweatshirt on, or someone who’s got baggy pants. We’re looking at every kid who comes through the door in the morning.”

Francisco said the point of checking random samples of students isn’t to catch guns, but to deter teens from bringing them. She noted that seven of the eight guns CMS officials have caught on school grounds this academic year were reported by students.

“Our goal is that this will increase students’ awareness of why bringing a weapon to school is never a good idea,” Francissco said.

Board member Rhonda Cheek, the mother of a high school junior, applauded the approach.

“I do think that the surprise aspect of it is very beneficial,” she said. “It lets them know there are adults out there who care about the things happening to them.”

Kendall Sanders, a Northwest School of the Arts junior who serves as the board’s non-voting adviser, asked if students will be punished if they refuse to be screened.

Wilcox said staff will try to accommodate concerns, but no one will be allowed to opt out. “They may be the very person who has the gun,” he said.

Wilcox voiced frustration that his staff was forced to veer into security work when they should be focused on education.

“This is not something that we chose to do or want to do,” he told the board. “I wish that we weren’t in this position, but we live in a society where guns have become all too prevalent.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.