The North Carolina General Assembly’s answer to the Parkland shooting and a still-simmering national conversation about school safety began Wednesday with a legislative committee. The House Select Committee on School Safety met for the first time to discuss measures to keep public school students safe.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R- Cleveland) said in his opening remarks that ever since appointing the committee, he has seen “absolutely unprecedented interest” in it among House members and the public.
“In fact, I think if I had appointed everybody that wanted to be on this committee, I think we’d have a committee of 120 from the House and maybe even a few senators would want to join in,” Moore joked.
The committee’s co-chairman David Lewis (R- Harnett) said the committee is meant to operate as a working group, receiving input from experts and keeping an open discussion to receive suggestions from members. Representatives threw out many questions and suggested solutions during an all-day meeting, while legislative assistants jotted down their ideas to later help form sub-committees.
Here are some of the major themes House representatives discussed:
School resource officers
The committee talked at length about increasing funding and support for school resource officers, or SROs. There is a shortage of SROs in both rural and urban schools. Sarah Wallace Strickland is a teen who spoke on behalf of herself and another student, who both serve on the Task Force for Safer Schools.
“Personally at my school, we have one SRO for five schools, which can be a real problem because the schools can be spread out by over 20 minutes,” Strickland said, “And at her school, she has one SRO trying to handle 2,500 students.”
Legislators also discussed requiring the officers to get specific training for school service, so that they are well equipped technically and are trained to de-escalate situations and treat students fairly. Representative Brenden Jones (R- Bladen, Columbus, Robeson) also suggested measures to make it easier to recruit retired law enforcement officers and veterans as volunteers in schools.
Mental health services
Jim Deni of the N.C. School Psychology Association addressed the committee with these concerning statistics:
- 1 in 5 North Carolina children has a mental health or substance use disorder and 75 percent will not receive treatment in the current system.
- North Carolina has about 1 school psychologist for every 2,100 students, and the nationally recommended ratio is 1 for every 700 students.
- About 80 percent of North Carolina parents polled say they don’t believe their child's school has enough funding to deal with children’s social and emotional health.
Deni recommended increasing funding for school psychologists, counselors and social workers. “I’d have a school psychologist in every school and a social worker in every school. I think we’d all be pretty busy,” Deni said.
Committee members returned to the theme of improving mental health services for students throughout the discussion.
Improving physical security of school buildings
Representative Craig Horn (R- Union) stressed the need to increase security and access to school buildings. One student serving on the Task Force for Safer Schools, Riley Barnes of Clayton High School, said she and her classmates did an experiment, to count all the exterior doors at their school.
“We concluded with the sum of 68 doors, 48 of which were unlocked. Needless to say this is quite chilling,” Barnes said.
Some solutions to improving physical access included installing locks on the inside of classrooms, re-fitting old schools and planning new school construction with more safety features. The floorplans of all public schools have been uploaded into a digital database so that emergency responders can access school layouts in a crisis.
Another widely-discussed solution was to expand use of a phone app that gives students an anonymous tip-line to report threats, bullying and suicide risks. Caroline Daily is Vice-Chair of Task Force for Safer Schools and an 8th grade English teacher at one of five counties that piloted the app SPKUP.
“We were able to get some good information from this app in an anonymous way that made students feel good about the way that they're reporting,” Daily said.
In support, Craig Horn (R- Union) asked to study how much it would cost to expand the tip-line statewide. Representative Donna White (R-Johnston) also said she has filed a bill, HB582, that would help fund the tip-line, and called for others to support that proposal.
Expanded protective orders
Following discussion of the tip-line, Darren Jackson (D-Wake) said that right now, police are limited in how they could even respond to a tip. Jackson said Democrats will introduce a proposal for law enforcement to be able to expand the use of protective orders. The orders would function similarly to a domestic violence protective orders, but could be brought against individuals deemed a threat to others regardless of their relationship.
Restricting access to guns
There was very little discussion of gun control at the meeting, save a few comments from Democrats.
“I hope that we’re also going to have a discussion about what needs to be done to protect the schools from guns being brought to school,” said MaryAnn Black (D-Durham).
Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) suggested increasing the age to buy an assault-style rifle from 18 to 21, noting that the Republican-led Florida legislature passed a similar measure.
The committee will meet again in April and will continue to convene in sub-committees between full meetings, with the ultimate goal of making recommendations to the General Assembly when it returns for its short session in mid-May. The full text of the committee's meeting materials, for this and future meetings, can be found here.