CMS safety mea­sures get new scru­tiny af­ter But­ler shoot­ing

Faced with bar­rage of fright­en­ing in­ci­dents, school district has an­nounced slate of safety re­forms that start in Jan­uary

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ANN DOSS HELMS AND BRUCE HEN­DER­SON [email protected]­lot­teob­ bhen­der­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Twice in the past month, hun­dreds of par­ents have swarmed to Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg high schools, fear­ing for the safety of their chil­dren locked in­side.

Mean­while, the mother of a sev­enth-grader was dev­as­tated to learn her son be­lieved he was about to die dur­ing a lock­down that was, ac­cord­ing to school of­fi­cials, trig­gered by a rel­a­tively mi­nor in­ci­dent. She says her son wasn’t told the rea­son for the lock­down and she knew noth­ing about it un­til her younger chil­dren told her what their brother had gone through.

These episodes show the dif­fi­culty of get­ting school lockdowns right – a task that ex­perts say is dif­fi­cult but vi­tal.

Over­re­act and a school district can fuel panic and, if dra­matic an­nounce­ments are overused, leave stu­dents and their fam­i­lies jaded when a real threat arises. Com­mu­ni­cate too lit­tle and both stu­dents and adults may lose trust.

“You don’t want to cre­ate fear with par­ents,” says Cur­tis Lavarello, exec- utive direc­tor of the School Safety Ad­vo­cacy Coun­cil in Lawrence, Mas­sachusetts. He rec­om­mends giv­ing par­ents a steady stream of safety in­for­ma­tion, us­ing meet­ings, school news­let­ters, so­cial me­dia and news me­dia.

On Oct. 29, a stu­dent at But­ler High in Matthews was fa­tally shot by an­other dur­ing a scuf­fle out­side the school cafe­te­ria. In the three weeks that fol­lowed, guns turned up at four more Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg high schools, in­clud­ing a Nov. 13 in­ci­dent at Olympic High that led to a lock­down and the ar­rest of three stu­dents on gun charges.

Faced with the bar­rage of fright­en­ing in­ci­dents, Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Schools has an­nounced a slate of safety re­forms, in­clud­ing ran­dom back­pack searches and “wand­ing” at high schools start­ing in Jan­uary. The district also says it will do a bet­ter job of in­form­ing par­ents about lockdowns and drills, while step­ping up “ac­tive sur­vival” train­ing to pre­pare for a worst-case sce­nario.

“We are strength­en­ing our cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion plan with more fre­quent up­dates and a wider mes­sag­ing to fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing in­stant text mes­sag­ing,” Su­per­in­ten­dent Clay­ton Wil­cox said at a Nov. 16 news con­fer­ence.

CMS ex­pects each school to prac­tice lockdowns at least twice a year. The district does not track the num­ber of ac­tual lockdowns, said Chief Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Of­fi­cer Tracy Russ.

Lock­down drills aren’t glam­orous. Since a mass school shoot­ing in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999, prac­tices in which chil­dren sit qui­etly in dark­ened, locked class­rooms have be­come


Clau­dia Charles, whose 12-year-old son wrote a farewell let­ter to his fam­ily dur­ing a lock­down at Gov­er­nors’ Vil­lage STEM Academy


But when Wash­ing­ton Post re­porters re­cently polled 34 schools that have ex­pe­ri­enced shoot­ings, they heard that such ex­er­cises are more ef­fec­tive than more dra­matic – and costly – phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers and high-tech gad­gets.

“The schools that have ex­pe­ri­enced gun vi­o­lence con­sis­tently cited sim­ple, well-es­tab­lished safety mea­sures as most ef­fec­tive at min­i­miz­ing harm: drills that teach rapid lock­down and evac­u­a­tion strate­gies, doors that can be se­cured in sec­onds and re­source of­fi­cers, or other adults, who act quickly,” re­porters John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich wrote ear­lier this month.


Righ­teous Keitt, a se­nior at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Tech­nol­ogy, es­ti­mates he’s ex­pe­ri­enced half a dozen lockdowns dur­ing his four years at the west Char­lotte mag­net school. They’ve been trig­gered by ev­ery­thing from crime in the nearby com­mu­nity to a stu­dent bring­ing an un­loaded gun to school, Keitt said.

Keitt, who is pres­i­dent of the Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Youth Coun­cil that’s ad­vis­ing Wil­cox on safety, says he’s not par­tic­u­larly rat­tled by lockdowns, let alone drills.

“We’ve had so many,” he said. “At some point you can tell when it’s a fake drill and when it’s real.”

But drills and lockdowns can be ter­ri­fy­ing to par­ents and chil­dren who pic­ture re­ports of mass shoot­ings across Amer­ica. Drills usu­ally in­volve herd­ing stu­dents to a spot away from doors and win­dows, turn­ing off lights, lock­ing the door and stay­ing quiet, as they would if a shooter were stalk­ing the halls.

Jen­nifer Sut­ton says she was rat­tled when she learned her sec­ond-grade daugh­ter had been through a lock­down at Moun­tain Is­land Day Com­mu­nity Char­ter School, a K-12 school in west Char­lotte, in early Septem­ber. She said she thought by choos­ing a small pri­vate school (which later con­verted to a pub­lic char­ter school) she was in­su­lat­ing her daugh­ter from dan­ger.

Now, even though no harm came and her daugh­ter was un­fazed, Sut­ton says she’s think­ing about home school­ing next year. A no­tice from the school said only that “a pos­si­ble con­cern” was in­ves­ti­gated and po­lice “de­ter­mined there was no im­mi­nent threat to the school com­mu­nity.”

“I guess I was un­der the as­sump­tion that it was pri­vate and that some­how made it bet­ter, and that’s not true,” said Sut­ton, who con­tacted the Ob­ser- ver af­ter the shoot­ing at But­ler High. “Ev­ery time there’s a shoot­ing or a lock­down it makes me want to pro­tect her, and I don’t know how.”

Clau­dia Charles, whose 12-year-old son wrote a farewell let­ter to his fam­ily dur­ing a lock­down at Gov­er­nors’ Vil­lage STEM Academy, says it was hear­ing about the shoot­ing in nearby Matthews that made her son re­act so strongly. CMS of­fi­cials say the Nov. 9 “in­ter­nal lock­down” at Gov­er­nors’ Vil­lage, a K-8 mag­net school, was prompted by an anony­mous threat and didn’t even re­quire teach­ers to turn off the lights and “shel­ter in place.”

But Ajani Dar­tigue­nave, Charles’ son, told the Ob­server he didn’t un­der­stand that la­bel and only grasped that the lock­down wasn’t a drill. He said he was told af­ter­ward that the school would ex­plain the rea­son for the lock­down to par­ents.

CMS says the school sent two no­tices to par­ents: once when the lock­down be­gan, ex­plain­ing that it was “a safety pre­cau­tion to an anony­mous threat,” and about 35 min­utes later when it was lifted. Charles says she didn’t get them.

“The lockdowns are dif­fer­ent af­ter But­ler,” Charles said, “be­cause a stu­dent was ac­tu­ally killed and it took place on school grounds in front of other stu­dents.”


Charles said CMS should start telling stu­dents in ad­vance if there’s go­ing to be a prac­tice lock­down, to spare them the anx­i­ety of imag­in­ing a shoot­ing.

But Russ said po­lice ad­vise against that.

“Law en­force­ment ex­perts ad­vise that drills are more ef­fec­tive as train­ing for real sit­u­a­tions when the sched­ule for drills is not shared in ad­vance,” Russ said in an email re­spond­ing to Ob­server ques­tions. “Dur­ing drills, law en­force­ment of­fi­cers record times for lock­down com­ple­tion, as­sess ar­eas for im­prove­ment and work with school lead­ers to re­duce times to com­plete lock­down and other mea­sures needed to help en­sure safety.”

He said it’s also up to po­lice to de­cide whether a school should lock down in the face of a threat, a tip that a stu­dent has a weapon or other risky sit­u­a­tions. Once a lock­down is called, schools are sup­posed to no­tify par­ents promptly if po­lice be­lieve the sit­u­a­tion is ur­gent or if the lock­down “re­mains in place for an ex­tended pe­riod of time,” Russ said.

Fam­i­lies should be no­ti­fied about all lockdowns and drills af­ter the fact, Russ said. He said CMS is work­ing to make sure that’s hap­pen­ing con­sis­tently.

The Ed­u­ca­tor’s School Safety Net­work, a na­tional not-for-profit train­ing and con­sult­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion, ad­vises school districts to group po­ten­tial threats in a three-tiered sys­tem and make sure par­ents un­der­stand that sys­tem be­fore any­thing hap­pens.

That sys­tem be­gins with is­sues out­side a school that don’t pose a di­rect threat but might trig­ger a lock­down of the cam­pus. A sec­ond tier in­cludes in­ter­nal sit­u­a­tions that present no im­me­di­ate dan­ger to stu­dents or staff, and a third tier is for se­ri­ous in­ter­nal threats.

“Peo­ple are a lot more re­cep­tive to rea­son­able poli­cies and pro­ce­dures when it’s not in the heat of the mo­ment,” said op­er­a­tions direc­tor Amanda Klinger.

But Lavarello, of the School Safety Ad­vo­cacy Coun­cil, said such cat­e­gories can ac­tu­ally con­fuse stressed par­ents when the mes­sage lands. In­stead, he sug­gests sim­ply telling par­ents what’s go­ing on. “Plain lan­guage usu­ally works the best be­cause anx­i­ety lev­els are high,” he said.


Re­gard­less of what CMS shares, older stu­dents send text mes­sages and post on so­cial me­dia as soon as they get wind of a prob­lem. At But­ler on Oct. 29 and at Olympic High on Nov. 13, that meant that par­ents and news me­dia con­verged on cam­puses even as po­lice and ed­u­ca­tors were try­ing to sort out what was hap­pen­ing.

Both cam­puses were on lock­down: But­ler be­cause one stu­dent shot an­other af­ter a brief fight out­side the school cafe­te­ria, Olympic be­cause three stu­dents had posted a photo and video of them­selves with a gun. That meant no one was al­lowed on cam­pus. Roads quickly clogged with parked ve­hi­cles. Anx­ious par­ents, some­times with younger chil­dren in tow, walked in the street, com­pet­ing for space with passers-by dis­tracted by the hul­la­baloo.

At But­ler, par­ents said they got mixed sig­nals from po­lice about whether they should go to nearby El­e­va­tion Church. Some ended up walk­ing an­grily across In­de­pen­dence Boule­vard from the church to the school.

Russ says each school has a des­ig­nated evac­u­a­tion site, but those aren’t an­nounced in ad­vance “to pro­tect the safety of stu­dents and staff.” He said the district is learn­ing about com­mu­ni­ca­tion and traf­fic con­trol from both re­cent in­ci­dents, in which par­ents were al­lowed to sign their chil­dren out of school once the lock­down was lifted.

One les­son from But­ler, Russ and Wil­cox say, is that when some­thing bad hap­pens CMS needs to in­form par­ents quickly and fre­quently, even be- fore of­fi­cials have nailed down all the de­tails. Wil­cox ac­knowl­edges that CMS waited too long be­tween the no­tice that a stu­dent had been shot and the first fol­low-up, al­most an hour later.

Along with all the changes the district plans to make, they’ve asked fam­i­lies to do their part by mak­ing sure schools have cur­rent con­tact in­for­ma­tion and by fol­low­ing CMS on Twit­ter, In­sta­gram and Face­book (@CharMeck­S­chools), where up­dates will be shared.

CMS also plans a se­ries of town hall meet­ings on safety. Those plans and other up­dates will be posted at safety.


Par­ents walk to pick up their chil­dren out­side But­ler High School af­ter a school shoot­ing last month. In the three weeks that fol­lowed, guns turned up at four more Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg high schools, in­clud­ing a Nov. 13 in­ci­dent at Olympic High that led to a lock­down and the ar­rest of three stu­dents on gun charges.

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