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Preventing the next tragedy: North Carolina’s complex search for school safety solutions

Nearly three weeks after the fatal shooting of a student at Butler High School in Matthews, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox somberly stepped up to a bank of microphones — shoulder-to-shoulder with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney.

Wilcox called the press conference to announce new security measures, most notably random security wand screenings, at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The enhancements would help deter violence, Wilcox said, but they won’t be a standalone solution to the problem.

“This is not just a school problem,” Wilcox said. “It’s a community problem. We are taking action to keep weapons out of schools because we want all students to have safe, secure environments that promote academic growth. Our focus in schools should be on education.”

Police press conference on Butler High School shooting. Liz Bell/EducationNC

On Oct. 29, minutes before the beginning of first period, two 16-year-old students at Butler High School, in the southeast Mecklenburg County town of Matthews, got into an altercation in a hallway. Jatwan Cuffie shot classmate Bobby McKeithen with a handgun. McKeithen died at the hospital; Cuffie was indicted in November by a Mecklenburg County grand jury on second-degree murder charges.

The shooting — and a spate of incidents involving guns or threats on CMS campuses in the weeks that followed it —reignited the debate about school violence in Charlotte.

What do they mean, the words school violence? Most of us probably conjure images of horrific massacres in classrooms — first graders slaughtered at Sandy Hook, adolescents running outside an Arkansas middle school, the anguish of Parkland’s survivors. Just this year, there have been 23 school shootings with injuries or deaths across the country. 

Although mass shootings garner headlines and rightly worry students and their families, the reality of school violence in North Carolina is far more nuanced, as the Butler shooting underscores. The policy issues are dizzying in scope: bullying, mental health, guns, technology, the role of government, funding priorities. Like nearly every issue facing North Carolina’s public schools today, solutions are far from one-size-fits-all; what will work in Mecklenburg County likely won’t in Robeson County. The best practice for Saluda probably can’t be carbon copied for Durham.

According to the latest data compiled by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and reported to the General Assembly, the number of reportable crimes — 16 criminal acts identified by the State Board of Education to be tracked and reported annually — by high school students decreased by four percent from the 2015-16 to 2016-17 school years. (Data for 2017-18 will be released in the spring.)

Geographically, the LEAs reporting the lowest amount of crime are overwhelmingly rural: Alleghany, Graham, Hyde, and Jones counties experienced zero grade 9-13 reportable crimes. The highest rates, however, occur across the state. Avery, Perquimans, Durham, Haywood, McDowell, Cleveland, Alexander, Madison, and New Hanover counties led the state in grade 9-13 reportable crimes.

From 2015-16 to 2016-17, nine categories of crime experienced increases in North Carolina public schools across all grade levels, notably sexual offense, up 193.8 percent year-over-year. Assaults that resulted in a serious injury increased 124 percent. During this same time period, however, possession of a firearm was down 11 percent.

Although decreases in crime rates are encouraging, educators and law enforcement officials contend they have plenty more work to do. The 105 people who encountered North Carolina public schools students with a firearm that school year would almost certainly agree.

The Parkland shooting, on Valentine’s Day in Florida, prompted new questions at schools across America about how to protect students, faculty, and staff. Here in North Carolina, much of the conversation turned toward preventive security measures — chief among them metal detectors.

Putney, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief, was an emphatic supporter of adding metal detectors, noting many other large, urban school districts do so. “Every major city I go to, it’s pretty common practice,” Putney told Charlotte television station WBTV. “I know people worry about the psyche of kids. I’m more concerned with the safety.”

But CMS resisted, in part because of the challenges inherent at its sprawling high school campuses with multiple buildings. South Mecklenburg High School, for example, stretches across 65 acres and more than a dozen buildings.  

“We’ve taken a look at metal detectors, and one of the things we could not reconcile is queuing up hundreds, if not thousands of kids, outside our high schools because we thought that created another set of factors that we simply couldn’t control,” Wilcox said.

Ultimately, the school board decided not to pursue metal detectors, but instead requested a $9.2 million enhanced security package from Mecklenburg County commissioners that would cover fencing around parts of some campuses, panic alarm cards for teachers and staff, classroom cameras, better digital video systems like exterior cameras at high school campuses, and potentially other upgrades.

In the wake of the Butler shooting, when Wilcox and Putney joined together for their news conference, CMS announced it would begin using metal detector wands in random locations throughout schools. The security screenings will begin in earnest after winter break and will include bag searches.

“They will make our schools safer,” Putney said. “Charlotte deserves no less.”

CMS also announced it would accelerate the deployment of the enhanced security package, including the individual panic alarms, which would allow staff to summon school security or first responders depending on the nature of a particular crisis.

Although these measures gave parents an immediate level of reassurance — news stories immediately following the announcement were filled with parents saying the move gave them peace of mind — national experts on school violence are quick to point out that schools cannot fortify themselves to safety.

“This rush to fortify our schools and put armed personnel at the door, I think, is very short sighted and not a good use of resources,” says Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia who directs the UVA Virginia Youth Violence Project.

In November, the Washington Post reported on the $2.7 billion school security industry, which includes products such as bullet-resistant whiteboards, armored classroom doors, and in-school triage kits. The report raises questions—which experts share—about focusing too heavily on stopping bullets.

“Prevention has to start before the gunman is in your parking lot,” Cornell says.

He believes it is essential for schools to train their teachers, administrators, and support staff to be interventionists who can evaluate potential risk in a school. “Anyone can make a threat, but relatively few individuals pose a threat,” Cornell told me. “All threats need to be taken seriously, but they’re not all equally serious. The response to threats should not be uniform or consistent.”

Earlier this year, in the aftermath of Parkland, Congress appropriated $50 million for the Stop School Violence Act. Some of that money is earmarked to train threat assessment teams at schools nationwide. Cornell says properly equipping these multidisciplinary teams is essential to ensuring school personnel “focus on behavior and known facts rather than intuition and emotions.”

This past February, Cornell was part of a group of academics calling themselves the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence who published a “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America.”

“Although security measures are important, a focus on simply preparing for shootings is insufficient,” the brief document states. “We need a change in mindset and policy from reaction to prevention. Prevention entails more than security measures and begins long before a gunman comes to school.”

The group called for a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as for a “comprehensive public health approach to gun violence that is informed by scientific evidence and free from partisan politics.” Congress’ Stop School Violence Act made no mention of gun control, and North Carolina’s legislature has similarly eschewed calls to address the role firearms play in school violence.

While that policy debate continues to be gridlocked, there are other strategies schools can consider. An approach known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design suggests that even superficial enhancements, such as branding and landscaping, can increase schools’ spirit of openness and community while reducing a propensity for violence in those spaces. 

Policymakers have also turned their attention toward face-to-face and digital bullying. North Carolina’s School Violence Prevention Act of 2012 revised the state’s bullying laws, updated the statute to recognize cyberbullying, and required all schools to create and enforce anti-bullying policies.

Currently, the Governor’s Crime Commission Special Committee to Improve School Safety is holding statewide hearings to determine what else North Carolina ought to do to keep students and staff safe. After the Parkland shooting, state House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, announced the creation of the House Select Committee on School Safety, which has been meeting periodically since March. This past weekend, legislators at the Summit on Student Safety and Wellbeing previewed legislation that the House Select Committee on School Safety will unveil on Thursday. 

One of the common refrains among school personnel and policy experts is the need for more social services and mental health support for students. According to Education Commission of the States, the three most common recommendations from states’ school safety task forces are: 1) increase school resource officers and mental health professionals in the schools, 2) increase communication between law enforcement, schools, parents, and students, and 3) update and strengthen school building security. 

The Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence called for “adequate staffing (such as counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers) of coordinated school- and community-based mental health services for individuals with risk factors for violence, recognizing that violence is not intrinsically a product of mental illness.”

And CMS Superintendent Wilcox, in the wake of the Butler shooting, made clear his desire to fund additional counselor positions. CMS added 60 additional counselors this year, he said, but the district remains well below the national best practice ratios for counselors to students.

“I want to use this announcement as a platform for early notice to our leaders: CMS will be asking for more support for our students and not in a small way,” Wilcox said.

The inherent challenge in school safety, educators say, is that schools do not exist in a vacuum. Students are bullied in their neighborhoods; weekend fights spill over to school days. The services a child benefits from on campus might be the only mental health or counseling support he or she receives.

That’s why Wilcox made a point throughout his press conference that although schools do bear a significant responsibility for safety, districts cannot be expected to control factors far beyond the borders of their campuses.

“It is clear that the entire community must be a part of keeping weapons out of our schools,” Wilcox said. “We cannot be partners in possibility if we fail to be stewards of safety for our kids. We simply must work together to keep weapons out of our schools and reduce violence in the lives of our young people.”

“I strongly believe that the true solutions to ending violence and guns in our schools are found in building relationships, in creating trust, and in creating community in our schools.”

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.