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School crime and violence rose across North Carolina last year, but especially in CMS

Instead of distributing the clear book bags it bought, CMS used scanners to flag metal in bags at high schools
Ann Doss Helms
Students now walk through scanners at all CMS middle, high and K-8 schools.

Anyone who followed the news last year knows Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools saw a surge of guns on campuses. A new state report shows school crime and violence rose across North Carolina during the past school year, but that spike was disproportionately high in CMS. 

Violent incidents at schools tend to be reported sporadically, as news leaks out. North Carolina’s General Assembly requires an annual tally of 16 criminal and violent incidents to get a handle on what’s really happening.

This week data came out for 2021-22, the first year all schools brought students back in person after pandemic disruptions. Statewide numbers were higher than before the pandemic, sometimes dramatically so.

The total number of reported incidents rose from 9,554 in 2018-19, the last full year before pandemic closures sent students home, to 11,170 last year. That’s a 16.9% increase.

That means many districts saw a spike in incidents, especially the most common ones: possession of controlled substances, possession of weapons other than guns and assaults on school employees.

But while CMS wasn’t alone in seeing crime and behavior problems increase, the state’s second-largest district drove a disproportionate share of the surge. CMS accounted for just over 9% of public school students last year, but reported 14% of all criminal and violent acts. That included 26% of assaults on staff, 18% of guns and 13% of other weapons found at schools.

Put another way, CMS reported almost 11 criminal or violent acts per thousand students last year, compared with a state average of 7.5. That’s a higher rate than any of the surrounding districts and tops the rates for Wake and Guilford counties, which are the closest in size to CMS.

CMS also accounted for 22 of the 48 North Carolina students expelled from school last year, a tally that’s tied to the large number of students caught with guns. The district’s rate of short-term suspensions, a far more common penalty for lesser infractions, was 15.4 per 1,000 students, slightly above the state average of 14.7 per 1,000.

In CMS guns surged, then ebbed

Guns at school are a small slice of all the incidents reported: 161 were found statewide, up from 124 in 2019.

CMS traditionally reports significantly more guns than other districts. In 2018-19, the last pre-pandemic year, CMS had set a record with 22 guns at schools. Last year the district exceeded that number by the end of the first semester, which ended with a student firing a gun in a scuffle outside West Charlotte High.

Then-Superintendent Earnest Winston urged parents, community members and law enforcement to help CMS combat the surge.

“Guns coming onto our campuses are a broader sign of angst in the community,” he said.

CMS also took steps to keep weapons out of schools, from a failed attempt to make all high schoolers carry clear backpacks to the installation of walk-through scanners in middle and high schools. The number of gun incidents slowed in the second semester, with the school-year total landing at 29. The second-highest total was 13, in Guilford County.

Last year’s tally included:

  • Eight guns at West Charlotte 
  • Five at Hopewell High 
  • Three at Harding High 
  • Two each at Garinger and Chambers high schools
  • One each at North Meck, West Meck, South Meck, Myers Park, Mallard Creek and Phillip O. Berry high schools; Ranson and Coulwood middle schools and Renaissance West STEAM Academy, a preK-8 school. 

So far this school year CMS has reported only three guns at schools. In December Chief Operating Officer Brian Schultz said he believes the Say Something system, which lets students anonymously report threats, and the Evolv scanners are making a difference. But deterrence is hard to quantify.

“Like, can you say how many you’ve prevented? Well, no, we can’t,” Schultz said.

Weapons and drugs

It’s far more common for students to be caught with weapons other than guns, such as knives, brass knuckles and BB guns or air pistols. CMS saw those numbers rise to well above pre-pandemic levels — but so did Wake, Guilford, Iredell-Statesville and several other Charlotte-area districts.

Jennifer Lang

Possession of controlled substances includes illegal drugs such as marijuana. It can also apply to prescription drugs, such as Ritalin, that shouldn’t be in a student’s possession.

Assaults on school employees

CMS has long reported unusually high numbers of assaults on school personnel, and those numbers rose last year as well. CMS had 361 such incidents last year, compared with 89 in the larger Wake district and 36 in Guilford, which is about half the size of CMS.

Assaults on staff can include shoves, slaps and threats to do violence. Sometimes those stem from children throwing tantrums or students with behavioral disabilities acting out. While middle and high schools account for most of the incidents tallied in the report, assaults on staff are more frequent at elementary schools.

In CMS, 110 assaults on staff came from Charlotte Mecklenburg Academy, a special school for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.

Data broken down by districts and schools can be downloaded here.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.