School safety panel focuses on mental health, prevention

By: Lindsay Marchello - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — Mental health dominated the first meeting of the House Select Committee on School Safety, with speakers warning legislators about a shortage of student mental health services.

Legislators began looking for ways to improve school safety after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, formed the House Select Committee on School Safety.

“We owe it to students to make North Carolina schools a space where they can excel,” Moore told the committee Wednesday, March 21. “We have an obligation to be leaders for our children and create not just schools, but a society, where they are safely able to succeed.”

The first committee meeting featured a flurry of presentations from the Task Force for Safer Schools, the Center for Safer Schools, the N.C. School Psychology Association, and the State Bureau of Investigation.

Elliott Smith, special agent in charge with the SBI, highlighted school violence data from the Department of Public Instruction. While possession of a weapon or firearm have decreased over the years, the number of bomb threats dramatically increased — from 69 in the 2015-16 school year to 89 in 2016-17. A majority of those bomb threats are made by students.

Smith said eight incidences of school violence — ranging from bomb threats to possessions of a firearm — have happened since Feb. 28.

Other speakers focused on a proactive — as opposed to a reactive — approach to school safety.

Jim Deni, a professor and school psychology trainer at Appalachian State University, likened identifying mental health issues to academic challenges.

“If you have a child with a significant reading problem, would you wait until fifth grade to intervene?” Deni asked. “You would probably intervene in kindergarten or first grade, as soon as you identify them. It doesn’t work any different in the behavioral or mental health area.”

Deni said one in five children suffer from some kind of mental health disorder or substance abuse problem. Deni, a past president of the North Carolina School Psychology Association, said 75 percent of those children won’t receive treatment within the current mental health system.

The NCSPA recommends every school have 1:700 school-psychologist-to-student ratio. North Carolina public schools have a ratio of 1:2,100. That’s a big problem, Deni said.

Greta Metcalf, who chairs the Mental Health Committee of the Task force for Safer Schools, said about 55 percent of children live in poverty and experience a higher rate of emotional, mental, and trauma related issues.

The stigma around mental health prevents many children from seeking help, Metcalf said, adding that having school support services integrated on campus could help students feel more comfortable talking to a therapist.

Speakers also touted the anonymous tip line app, SPK UP NC, which allows students to notify officials about a range of concerns, including bullying, threats of violence, and substance abuse. Students suffering from suicidal thoughts can also call a hotline through the app.

SPK UP NC, which started in 2015, is still only in the pilot stage in 42 schools across five counties. To date, the app has been downloaded 2,991 times. For the program to leave the pilot stage and expand, it would need additional funding.

High school presenters Sarah Wallace Strickland and Riley Barnes gave a students’ perspective on school safety. They called for giving students a voice and praised the SPK UP NC app.

“It is an undeniable, fundamental right that I feel secure in my sanctuary of education. It is an undeniable, fundamental right that I do not have to fear or anticipate violence against my peers and I,” Barnes said. “It is an undeniable, fundamental right that precautions are taken to ensure that I do not go through my schooling days in fear.”

Lindsay Marchello is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.

Lindsay Marchello

Carolina Journal