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Surge of guns in Charlotte-area schools sparks call for action from CMS and the community

 Superintendent Earnest Winston talks about guns in schools at Tuesday's CMS school board meeting.
Superintendent Earnest Winston talks about guns in schools at Tuesday's CMS school board meeting.

Superintendent Earnest Winston opened his remarks to the school board Tuesday by acknowledging that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a problem.

"To date , we have found 15 guns on our campuses or transportation vehicles," he said. "That is unacceptable."

That’s more than the district encounters in most full school years, and the midway point is still eight weeks away. In 2018-19, the last full year of in-person classes, the district set a record with 22. At the current pace, this year would go well past that.

But Winston offered no strategies for countering the trend. Instead, he noted that Charlotte has also seenshootings into homes increase.

"That is to say this: That guns coming onto our campuses are a sign of broader angst in the community," Winston said.

School board members also talked about community trends, such as adults’ failure to lock up guns and an increase in gun purchases — and thefts — during the pandemic. Jennifer De La Jara said people can help by reporting what they see, like a neighbor who recently tipped officers to a gun outside an elementary school.

"One of the guns that was found, from my understanding, was reported by a neighbor who saw someone toss it behind a bush," she said.

CMS communications director Eve White said that incident happened at Charles H. Parker Academic Center, shortly after a ceremony to recognize the renaming of the former Barringer Academic Center. A neighbor reported that y ou ng peop le who were not students there were "running around with guns" nearby and tossed something into a bush, White said. Police found a gun, which counted toward the 15 because it was on school property.

Seeking strategies from the superintendent

School board member Margaret Marshall told the audience the board wants school-based strategies too.

"We have asked the superintendent for some short-term and long-term proposals for the gun issue that we’re dealing with, which I think is top of mind for everybody," she said. "And he’s going to be giving that to us very quickly."

She also assured parents that students caught with guns face severe penalties.

"They are expelled," she said. "That means no sports teams. That means no prom. That means no more education in CMS, no more education in any public school in this state. So for parents that think there is just a suspension, no. It’s over."

Town hall and parent patrols in Huntersville

Not everyone is waiting for the superintendent. Board member Rhonda Cheek, who represents the north ern suburbs, said she and Huntersville Mayor- e lect Melinda Bales will lead a town hall meeting next week "so that we can give parents a place to hear about new ideas and new interventions that have been suggested for school safety and also to give parents a place to share their concerns and thoughts." 

It's scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Lake Forest Church, 8519 Gilead Road, in Huntersville.

Anxiety runs especially high at Hopewell High in Huntersville. Early in the school year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said they suspected students there of possible involvement in fatal shootings outside school hours, though none have been charged with those shootings. Last week, two guns were confiscated and five students were charged after a fight at Hopewell.

Cheek says parents at Hopewell have started groups called Dads on Duty and Moms on a Mission. They’ll help monitor halls and bathrooms and, in Cheek’s words, act as an extra set of eyes.

The "Dads on Duty" movement started in Shreveport, L o u isi ana , after a surge of school violence there.

Some blame Winston

Melanie Holland has a daughter at Hopewell. She used the public comment period to say CMS needs to do more.

"There are practical things that can be done that we have suggested numerous times: Clear backpacks, metal detectors, dads being present at school," she said. Holland said she has also suggested support groups for parents and students who may be struggling at home.

"Why haven’t you implemented these things if this was such an issue?" she asked.

Holland was among several speakers who said Winston’s leadership is part of the problem, with some calling for his resignation or firing. Neither Winston nor the board responded, which is customary during public comments. Winston left the meeting without taking questions.

Problems run deep

Rae LeGrone, a CMS parent and teacher, said calls for metal detectors and new leadership are more about optics than real safety.

"If you want to help your students — really help — dig into the root issues behind the violence in our schools: h unger, mental health, generational poverty, abuse," she said.

If there was one broad point of agreement, it was the one summarized by board member Lenora Shipp.

"This is important to all of us," she said. "How can we improve academics until kids feel safe?"

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.