Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will put more resources into providing a safe environment for schools, Superintendent Tricia McManus said at a press conference on Thursday, hours after law enforcement officials found a gun in a student’s backpack at Mount Tabor High School.
Just 5 weeks old, the school year has been marked by a spate of gun-related incidents that have put students, staff and parents on edge. Since a student was fatally shot at Mount Tabor High School on Sept. 1, guns have been found on students at Reynolds and Parkland. Last week, several rounds of gunfire near Parkland High School at dismissal time sent students scurrying back into the school to safety, frightening many of them.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said the guns are “coming from a lot of different places. Some of the guns are stolen that the kids are carrying,” he said. Others are given to students by adult gang members, the sheriff said.
“Everyone who’s a gang member is not a teenager,” Kimbrough said. “Some of these kids in the gangs are old enough to purchase a gun.”
The presence of guns and fights is not the result of any sort of ongoing gang war, he said. But he did say there is a presence of gangs in the school system.
Students who are gang members bring those affiliations with them when they attend local schools, Kimbrough said.
Thursday’s press conference with McManus was an attempt to reassure the school district that its leaders are taking measures to improve safety and send a message that 99% of its 53,000 students are doing the right thing, are safe and want to be in school.
“I thought it was important that we make a statement, that we are not sitting back, that we take guns on our campus very seriously and that we take any type of violence on our campus seriously,” McManus said.
On Thursday, a deputy who is assigned as a school resource officer at Mount Tabor received an anonymous tip about a student with a weapon, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said.
The student will be charged with possessing a weapon on campus, the sheriff’s office said.
McManus said students who bring firearms to a school campus are suspended for 365 days and are transferred to alternative schools.
In addition to the four firearms, three BB guns have been found on students at Paisley Middle School, McManus said.
The school district is likely to soon hire a security consultant to review plans, make assessments and recommend changes, she said. The school board will need to approve such a hire, which could happen as soon as two or three weeks.
In addition, the school district has implemented a clear-bag policy at football games and has begun using a hand-held metal detector, or wand, at large sporting events. Those changes came in response to the shooting at Mount Tabor and a gunshot that was fired outside of a football stadium in Charlotte while Glenn High School was playing.
McManus said the clear-bag policy and “wanding” could be expanded to inside the schools.
Each middle and high school has metal detection wands that administrators use as needed if they suspect a student has a weapon.
School officials will also spend more time at Parkland, Mount Tabor and Reynolds high schools to review supervision plans and try to figure out why fights are happening and talk to students about alternatives to violence.
“I’ve spent time in all three of these schools ... great things are happening on these campuses. It’s these sporadic events that paint a picture that the school is unsafe and there is chaos, and it’s not true,” McManus said.
The school district will also hold community forums to talk with parents about gun violence and plans to hire more social workers and counselors, she said.
Despite the high-profile incidents, fights among middle and high school students are down this year compared to 2019, McManus said.
There have been 100 fights in the first four weeks of this year compared with 147 in 2019.
However, the number of guns in the district has jumped from three reports in 2016 to eight in 2020, a year when students were on campus three months fewer than normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to statistics compiled by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
In 2019, there was 13 reports of guns on school campuses.
“We want to make sure that everything we do is going to solve the problem and not just provide a false sense of security,” McManus said. “Everything we do has got to be well thought out and intentional.”
John Hinton contributed to this story.