Wanding CMS students for guns is ‘gross indignity’ but needed for safety, Wilcox says

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched its gun searches Tuesday morning at Garinger and Rocky River high schools, two of the eight schools drawn by a minister in Monday afternoon’s public lottery.

CMS wanded students and searched bags in four classrooms at each school, finding no weapons of any kind, Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ said.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Tuesday afternoon that he remains reluctant about invasive security measures, but felt compelled to add them after school shootings across the country, including an Oct. 29 fatal shooting at Butler High in Matthews.

“I want our students to know that I feel school is a sanctuary. It’s a safe place for them. And it’s incredibly hard to convey that feeling when you have kids marched into metal detectors (and) wanded,” he said. “...This is in many ways kind of a gross indignity that we are subjecting them to.”

Morning reports indicated each search took about an hour, but Russ said Tuesday afternoon that staff were able to search classrooms in about eight minutes each. The hour time was at Garinger High, he said, where the search team had to walk among several buildings to the randomly selected classrooms.

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CMS security staff search bags at Rocky River High on Tuesday. Courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

The district has outlined three options: pulling students out of a few classrooms, searching one building on a campus, or bringing all students on a campus to a central location for screening. All involve looking into students’ bags and using metal-detector wands to check students.

Once CMS acquires a gun-sniffing dog, that will be part of bag searches. The district has said students will not come into contact with the dog.

Questions remain about how much a full-school search will disrupt class time. According to CMS facility reports, Garinger has just over 100 classroom teachers and Rocky River has about 85, so the classes screened Tuesday represent well under 10 percent of the entire student body.

Russ declined to estimate how much time it will take to search full-size high schools, which range from about 1,300 to 3,500 students. Newer schools are contained in one building, but older ones have multiple buildings spread over large campuses.

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A student removes items from a book bag during a gun search at Rocky River High on Tuesday. Courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

On Monday CMS leaders put the names of all 19 full-sized high schools into envelopes, sealed them and had the co-chair of the superintendent’s interfaith advisory committee pull eight. The names are not being released until the searches are done.

Russ said Tuesday that Garinger, a school of about 1,800 in east Charlotte, and Rocky River, a school of about 1,500 in Mint Hill, were the first two selected by the minister. The public drawing and oversight by clergy, which continues at schools where the screenings are done, are intended to assure the public that black, Hispanic and low-income students aren’t being targeted and students are being treated respectfully.

Garinger is a Title I school, which indicates extremely high poverty. It is less than 5 percent white, with students almost evenly divided among African-Americans and Hispanics. Rocky River is a majority-black school with lower levels of poverty; white enrollment is under 10 percent.

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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.