School crime and violence down in CMS, North Carolina

Crime, violence and out-of-school suspensions declined in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and public schools across North Carolina last year, a report released Wednesday shows.

In CMS, the decline was driven by fewer students being caught with weapons other than guns, the report shows. The district reported 10 guns at schools in 2012-13, the highest total since 2007-08.

Sexual assaults, defined as touching a person’s private parts against their will, also declined in CMS.

Total incidents in CMS dropped to a four-year low, even as enrollment has grown. But the report shows CMS continues to experience levels of crime and violence higher than the state average.

“We’re seeing some great trends in response to some of the initiatives we have in place,” said CMS spokeswoman Kathryn Block, though she had no specific explanation for the decline in weapons or sexual assaults. “Clearly there’s more work to be done.”

The state requires all public schools to report on 16 criminal and violent acts, ranging from assaults and robberies to possession of drugs and alcohol. The 10,630 acts reported statewide for 2013-14 were the lowest in eight years, for a rate of 7.2 acts per 1,000 students.

CMS reported 1,386 acts, or 9.9 per 1,000 students. That’s the lowest rate since 2008-09.

The report tallies all incidents that happen at schools, whether the offender is a student, employee or outsider. For instance, CMS had North Carolina’s only reported homicide at school, a fatal shooting at Hidden Valley Elementary. A 17-year-old was killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police when a drug sting in the school parking lot went bad. The shootout happened in June, when the school year had ended, but parents, students and faculty were on site for summer program registration.

Episodes varied widely by school. Twenty-seven of CMS’ 160 schools reported no criminal or violent incidents. Nine, including four alternative or special schools, had rates of more than 30 incidents per 1,000 students.

Charter schools generally reported fewer incidents than CMS and surrounding districts. The Observer calculated a composite for 16 Charlotte-area charters that served 11,659 students from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties last year. Half of them reported no criminal or violent acts; the 16 averaged 1.8 acts per 1,000 students, compared with 9.9 in CMS, 5.1 in Cabarrus, 3.5 in Gaston, 7.5 in Iredell-Statesville, 5.8 in Lincoln and 8.2 in Union County.

The annual report also tallies out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. There, too, CMS saw a decline but remains higher than state averages and other large districts.

Assaults on staff

CMS has long had an unusually high level of assaults on teachers and other school staff.

The total rose slightly last year to 387. That means CMS accounted for about 9.5 percent of all North Carolina students but just over one-third of the state’s assaults on school personnel.

The larger Wake County school system reported 188 assaults on staff.

Metro School in uptown Charlotte, which serves about 250 students with severe mental and/or physical disabilities, accounted for 102 of CMS’ assaults on personnel. Students there range from age 3 to 23.

Smithfield Elementary, a neighborhood school in south Charlotte, reported 30 assaults on staff, the next-highest number. Block said that stemmed from “a unique situation” involving a small number of students.

In past years, CMS officials have noted that assaults on adults often involve young children and/or those with disabilities having tantrums and lashing out.

Assaults with weapons and those causing serious injury are reported separately and do not distinguish between student and adult victims. CMS reported 13 assaults with serious injury and 14 involving weapons last year, similar to the previous year’s numbers.

Wake had 18 assaults resulting in serious injury and eight involving weapons.

Drugs, weapons at school

Possession of drugs and weapons traditionally account for the majority of offenses. Both categories declined statewide, while CMS saw a big drop in weapons but an increase in drug possession.

CMS reported 353 weapons at schools last year, a category that includes knives, razors, fireworks, BB guns and air pistols but not real guns or serious explosives. That’s down from 512 the year before and is the lowest weapons tally since 2004-05.

The district also reported 10 real guns: wo at Rocky River High and one each at North Meck, West Charlotte and Olympic International Business high schools; Albemarle Road and Sedgefield middle schools; Ashley Park preK-8 school; and Cornelius and Hidden Valley elementary schools.

In comparison, Wake County reported 352 weapons and five guns.

CMS reported 500 acts of possession of controlled substances, a category that includes illegal drugs and unauthorized prescription drugs. That’s up from 434 the prior year and well over Wake’s 378.

CMS also reported 70 instances of alcohol at school, compared with 78 the previous year and 80 in Wake.

Sexual acts

One rape and one instance of an adult taking indecent liberties with a minor were reported at any North Carolina school last year. Neither was in CMS.

However, CMS reported 18 instances of “sexual offense,” the same as the previous year. That category includes statutory rape, other sexual acts with children and forcible penetration with any object. Wake reported only one such incident.

Sexual assaults dropped from 75 in CMS in 2011-12 to 12 last year. Wake reported five.

Kicked out of school

In addition to the tally of criminal and violent acts, the report includes out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. While the offenses may be less severe, high suspension rates can signal a troubled school and derail students’ academic progress.

Short-term suspensions of 10 days or less account for the vast majority of those episodes. CMS reported 35,822 short-term suspensions (down 1,642), 97 long-term suspensions (up nine) and four expulsions (none the prior year).

CMS has been working to reduce suspensions for “discretionary” offenses such as insubordination and cutting class. Locally and across the country, such suspensions fall disproportionately on minority students, especially African-American males. Last year African-Americans accounted for 42 percent of CMS enrollment but 77 percent of short-term suspensions and 79 percent of long-term ones.

Superintendent Heath Morrison has said students need to be removed for violent and dangerous acts, but in-school alternatives can be a better approach for less serious misbehavior. A citizen task force on African-American males recommended looking for alternatives to suspension.

The CMS board plans to meet soon to talk more about alternatives to suspension.

The state report indicates CMS high school students are more likely to be suspended than counterparts around the state. The rate of short-term suspensions for CMS high school students was 40 per 100 last year, compared with a state average of 25.3. Wake’s rate was 16.2 per 100 and Guilford County, the state’s third-largest district, reported 20.7 per 100.

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