Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools held a dramatic lottery in front of reporters Monday to determine which high schools will be the first to search students with wands for guns.
The searches are expected to begin as early as Tuesday. Monday afternoon, CMS officials summoned the news media to watch them put the names of 19 high schools into sealed envelopes, with Dr. Wardell Henderson, a retired AME Zion minister, choosing eight from a clear plastic bin.
District officials delivered the eight sealed envelopes to CMS Police Chief Lisa Mangum. The first sign people will get that the searches have begun will be when students and parents are notified. Messages from the principal will make it clear that even if the school goes on lockdown for an extended period, this is not an actual safety threat.
“These searches will be familiar because they really are much like what happens as you enter CMS football games,” said Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ. It will include staff looking into students’ bags and doing “no-touch” wand searches of their bodies.
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Superintendent Clayton Wilcox promised the searches in November, after the Oct. 29 shooting of a Butler High student and several subsequent episodes of guns being found in CMS high schools. In a January update to the school board, Wilcox acknowledged the logistics of searching everyone at schools that range from 1,300 to 3,500 students could prove challenging.
Russ declined Monday to provide an estimate of the time a full-school search will take, saying that will depend on the number of students and layout of the school. During searches parents will not be allowed to sign students out, and Russ urged families to make sure the school knows in advance about any scheduled medical appointments.
Not all schools will search every student. Some will target one building or a handful of classrooms, but Russ said Monday that a full-school search, with all students herded to one central location, will happen at least once. He said CMS will make public reports each day after searches are complete.
Russ said the public drawing was not designed to be theatrical but to assure everyone that the process is random and transparent.
Board members and community members have voiced concerns that the searches will target students of color and/or the high-poverty schools that serve many of them. Russ repeatedly said that once a school, building or classroom is chosen, all students will be searched.
Henderson, who co-chairs the superintendent’s interfaith advisory council, said he’s participating to show support.
“We know (Wilcox) has labored and struggled with this,” Henderson said. “We support his efforts 100 percent.”
When CMS posted an update on school searches on its Instagram over the weekend, it drew 500 comments, many saying this will make schools feel like prisons. Some asked if students would be disciplined if the searches turn up something other than guns, including pain medication brought from home.
“The goal of these screenings is not to catch people with Advil,” Russ said Monday. But, he said, “we can’t ignore things that we find.”
Mangum said the CMS police department is in the process of buying a dog that can detect gunpowder. CMS already has a drug-sniffing dog, but he isn’t trained for gun searches.
The school searches are the newest and most controversial component of a safety plan that had been gearing up since the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. Wilcox initially resisted the idea of wanding and searching students. But on Oct. 29, 16-year-old Bobby McKeithen III was fatally shot outside the school cafeteria as school began. Another student has been charged with killing him.
In the ensuing three weeks, guns turned up at four more CMS high schools, leading to the November safety announcement.
Other efforts include enhanced video surveillance, more fencing, better entrance screening, new “panic alarm cards” and beefed-up staffing, such as counselors and psychologists, to handle students’ social and emotional challenges.
Earlier Monday, CMS invited news media to a two-hour “active survival” class that’s being offered to faculty. The district hired retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Detective Wes Eubank in November to teach educators strategies for dealing with a shooter rampaging through a school. It included tactics for escaping, barricading doors, fighting as a last resort and administering emergency first aid if needed.
The goal, he said, is to make sure no student dies huddled under a desk.
“Under the desk means you will die,” Eubank said. “Don’t get under a desk.”
Posts on social media have said the CMS training traumatizes teachers by pointing guns and/or firing blanks at them. Mangum said the only training that involved any kind of simulated attack was a training for CMS police, which used some volunteers from McClintock Middle School.
Russ said staff are being trained in the active survival tactics first, and age-appropriate messages will be developed to help prepare students without traumatizing them.
Look for updates about CMS safety plans at www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmssafety.