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House Panel Launches Dialogue On School Safety In NC

House Panel Launches Dialogue On School Safety In NC

The House Select Committee on School Safety held its first meeting Wednesday and began an in-depth review of current safety measures already in place for NC’s public schools as well as the mental health challenges that often precede violence either on a school campus or in local communities. The committee concluded the day with a brainstorming session in which committee members highlighted key topics the new panel should dig deeper into in the coming year to help frame enhancements for school safety across the state.

The committee, co-chaired by Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), was appointed by Speaker of the House Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), who opened the meeting and set the tone for the panel’s work.

“You on this committee are being tasked with making decisions on behalf of the children who might feel scared to go to school,” Speaker Moore said. “Students are asking their loved ones if they’re safe, if their classrooms are a place they can learn and be free of fear. We owe it to our students in North Carolina to make schools a space where students and educators can excel, and not have to worry about other matters.”

State Superintendent Mark Johnson also spoke to the committee and reiterated the importance of lawmakers working with education leaders to ensure all public schools in the state provide a safe learning environment to allow students to succeed.

The committee then spent a half day hearing from several agencies involved in public safety, whose spokesmen helped define existing school safety measures as well as providing information on previous threats and how they are handled, and other presenters who focused on mental health needs of students and communities.

First, Acting Special Agent in Charge Elliot Smith provided an overview of how the SBI works collaboratively with different agencies and associations across the state, and sometimes even with other states, in order to identify threats before they become acts of violence. He discussed how social media impacts their work, as well as the availability of information from potential threats through social media portals, and that they take every threat seriously and thoroughly investigate each one. Committee members had several questions for him, particularly regarding the utilization of social media to detect and investigate threats moving forward. To view his presentation, click here.

Next, Sheriff Robert Holland with the Task Force for Safer Schools presented the training of school resource officers (SROs) and their role in responding to acts of violence on campus. He also explained the Critical Incident Response training for school faculty and staff. Committee members asked Mr. Holland statistics and facts about SRO response, student-to-SRO ratios, and other specific training questions, as well as stated their intent on further delving into SROs as a resource for student safety in the future. Click here for more information discussed by Mr. Holland.

Following Mr. Holland, Kym Martin, Director of the Center for Safer Schools, spoke to the committee regarding additional information on SROs and the existing school safety law, S.L. 2019-360, which provides a grant process to help place SROs in elementary and middle schools as well as funding for panic alarm systems. The law also spells out requirements for school safety exercises, schematic diagrams of school facilities, an anonymous tip line option, and crisis kits. Her presentation, combined with others from the Center for Safer Schools, can be found here.

John Dorman, from the NC Emergency Management Division and a member of the Task Force for Safer Schools, then presented an in-depth overview of NC’s School Risk and Response Management system by discussing the system’s framework, digital school floor plans, and other details involved in the planning process.

Chief Officer of Community Engagement at Meridian Behavioral Health Services Greta Metcalf then explored the challenges that NC’s current mental health system faces and the social stigma surrounding mental health disorders. Ms. Metcalf discussed the state’s current mental health processes, explaining the Comprehensive School Based Mental Health Model, noting that that 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder, a rate that climbs higher when examining those living under the poverty level.

Dr. Jim Deni, Professor of Psychology at Appalachian State University and Immediate Past-President of the North Carolina School Psychology Association (NCSPA), noted that “in a high school of 750 students, it’s likely over 100 students will experience some form of mental health need ... we have to have a balanced approach between psychological safety and physical safety. We can’t shift this discussion to only physical safety – that approach will not end the increase in mental health problems.” Dr. Deni also addressed the issues of teen suicide, bullying, and his finding that 80.5% of parents that believe their child’s school does not have enough people and resources to effectively help students with social and emotional health needs, a problem that could be remedied by bringing more school counselors and psychologists to public schools. To view his presentation, click here.

Lastly, the committee heard Carolina Daily, an eighth grade English teacher at Riverwood Middle School in Johnston County, and two high school students, Sarah Wallace Strickland and Riley Barnes. Ms. Daily gave an in-depth overview of Speak Up NC, an app currently in the pilot phase, which enables students to send anonymous tips about school safety concerns, such as bullying, general danger, drugs, fighting, underage drinking and weapons, as well as offering a suicide hotline. To date, there have been 2,991 downloads of the app and there is much anticipation of its success and potential expansion for use in other school districts. Pilot research reveals that Speak Up NC helps students by providing a resource in a format that appeals to current adolescent culture. To view materials from Ms. Daily’s presentation, click here.

Following the presentation and question series, the committee held a discussion on what to do moving forward. Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union) stated that addressing the facility side of school safety needs attention, and the age of some school buildings will limit the types of infrastructural changes that are feasible. Many other committee members, including Rep. MaryAnn Black (D-Durham), wanted more information about training for SROs. Rep. Marvin Lucas (D-Cumberland) raised the issue of specific training that may be needed by volunteer SROs, which are allowable under current law, which may include retired law enforcement officers and military personnel who are honorably discharged.

Other topics added to the list for potential discussions by the committee include the following:

  • Limiting gun access by potentially increasing the purchase age of long guns to 21 and banning bump stocks.
  • Increasing funding for school counselors and school psychologists, who can increase interaction with students to help head off safety threats before they escalate, as well as funding for SROs who lead security efforts on campus.
  • In-depth looks at the training of SROs.
  • Raising the penalty of making threats and reporting false threats.
  • Decreasing the stigma surrounding mental health disorders and treatment.
  • Delving further into the Speak Up App resource for students.
  • More funding for capital improvements, such as fences, cameras, bullet-proof glass, etc.

The chairmen indicated that subcommittees will be formed for a deeper dive into some of the topics, and the committee, which is not time-limited, would like to identify recommendations for school safety law changes that the full General Assembly can consider in the 2018 short session that begins on May 16. To view all meeting materials, click here.

To view EdNC coverage of presentations to the committee and the day-long discussions, click here.

Jacqueline Wyatt
NCASA