For years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has reported more guns on school grounds than any other North Carolina district. But officials took comfort in noting that guns were being intercepted without being fired.
That ended Monday morning, when officials say a two-student fight at suburban Butler High School resulted in one student fatally shot and the other accused of shooting him.
The fatal shooting inside a school, which appears to be a first for CMS, follows a year of intense debate about keeping students safe from guns in Charlotte and across the nation.
CMS is embarking on a $9 million plan to make buildings safer, including giving all faculty “panic alert cards” that would let them instantly notify administrators and police about dangerous situations.
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In the weeks following February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., Charotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney repeatedly urged CMS to start “wanding” everyone who enters any school. “You’re going to have to give up some level of freedom to get this right,” Putney said at March town hall meeting on school safety.
But Superintendent Clayton Wilcox decided against that move, citing the practical obstacles to screening large numbers of students, staff and volunteers who may move between buildings several times a day. He said he wanted to keep the focus on education.
That decision was being second-guessed on the CMS Facebook page Monday.
“This is why we need metal detectors and pat downs before students enter school,” one commenter said, a sentiment that was echoed with variations many times.
Several also criticized CMS for not notifying families fast enough and for keeping school open even as police investigated the crime scene. Parents and students leaving school Monday said they got little or no immediate information from the district. They described a crowd of upset parents “storming” the office to get their children.
Most of this year’s safety changes, including better locks used more consistently and ID screening of all visitors, are focused on keeping out potentially dangerous intruders.
Standing somberly outside Butler, a 2,100-student school in Matthews, Wilcox said Monday morning that he expects to re-examine safety questions, though his initial focus was on the victim and the trauma of students who saw the fatal incident.
“We’re going to review all of our procedures. We’re going to review our security plan,” Wilcox said. “Perhaps we will need to do some things, get a little more aggressive.”
At a Monday afternoon update, Wilcox offered no more specifics on safety changes.
“We can’t promise miracles,” he said, “but I can promise we will move heaven and earth to make our schools safe for all of our kids.”
He said that Butler’s plan for dealing with active shooters worked well, and said the fatal conflict “began as bullying that escalated out of control as fear took over.”
At the morning news briefing, Wilcox noted that “I don’t know how a young person gets a handgun in the state of North Carolina.”
Gun tallies high for years
But students clearly have been getting handguns and bringing them to school for years. The latest state report on crime and violence in North Carolina public schools showed 19 guns found on CMS campuses in 2016-17.
That was a 10-year high for CMS and far more than any other district, including the larger Wake County system. CMS accounted for about 10 percent of North Carolina’s total enrollment but almost 20 percent of guns on school grounds that year.
The 2017-18 state report has not been released, but the Observer has requested CMS gun totals for that year and the 2018-19 year to date.
“The important statistic for me, while we had 19 guns, we did not have a shooting,” Wilcox said when the state report came out in February.
Based on several years of school violence reports, there’s no easy way to predict where a gun might show up. They’re more common among teens, but have turned up in elementary schools. They cross all boundaries of geography, demographics and academic performance.
Gunfire at CMS is rare
While CMS has topped the North Carolina gun tallies for years, it’s been rare to see a gun pulled, let alone used to shoot anyone in school.
Students have died from gunfire. But before this the incidents have been after hours and off campus. The 1989 shooting death of a West Charlotte High student at a party led to a national movement, Students Against Violence Everywhere.
In 2003 a student brought a loaded gun to East Mecklenburg High and a student sustained minor injuries when the gun went off accidentally, according to Observer reports at the time.
In 2007 a North Mecklenburg High student pointed a gun at two classmates on campus, then drove to a nearby gas station and fatally shot himself, an article at the time reported.
In 2008 a student was shot by a classmate at Crossroads Charter High in Charlotte, which has since closed. Reports at the time said the shooting happened outside the school, which is not part of CMS, and the injured student survived.
CMS saw a spate of frightening gun incidents in 2010.
A student at Martin Luther King Middle School pointed a gun at classmates near the school entrance, then fired into the air, a report from that time shows. Garinger High saw two incidents of gunfire that year, once after a brawl at a football game and once as buses were leaving the school. But no one was hit in either incident, either, Observer articles show.
Across the country
Education Week has tallied 22 school shootings in 2018 that have resulted in 35 deaths and 77 injuries. Students accounted for 28 of the deaths. That tally includes a domestic dispute between adults in a school parking lot, a handful of shootings at football games and an incident in which a teacher accidentally fired a gun during a gun safety lesson.
It also includes highly publicized mass shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas.
An itemized list shows that of the 17 incidents in which a suspect’s age was available, 13 of the accused shooters were school age, ranging from 12 to 18.
The Parkland shooting sparked a wave of protests across America, including school walkouts and rallies for better gun control in Charlotte.
The North Carolina House created a select committee on school safety earlier this year. It has been holding meetings around the state this month.