School safety debate just beginning in North Carolina

By: Lindsay Marchello - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — On Feb. 14, a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparking outrage and fear across the country. Students, teachers, and parents demanded that something be done to prevent a similar tragedy.

Although hundreds of miles away, the effects of the Parkland shooting reached the halls of legislatures across the nation, including, of course, the General Assembly in Raleigh. Republicans and Democrats alike offered their condolences, but the public wanted something more concrete: a definitive plan to ensure students and teachers were safe at schools.

“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.”

That’s from Riley Barnes, a high school student speaking March 21 to the House Select Committee on School Safety.

Barnes’ interpretation of the U.S. Constitution is debatable, but the intentions are clear. Barnes and students across the country want lawmakers to act, although many fail to consider the inherent weight of the Second Amendment and the right of self-defense.

Still, they’re begging lawmakers to act.

Suggestions range from banning assault weapons to implementing age requirements to buy guns to expanding and enhancing background checks. To arming teachers to installing metal detectors in all schools to hiring more armed deputies to patrol the hallways. To placing trained yet armed volunteers in schools, an idea devised and championed by Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, created a committee, with the stated purpose of improving school safety, just days after the Parkland tragedy.

“Our first mission is to provide data, reports and expert input from state and local officials who are trained and experienced in school safety to the committee members,” Moore said in a news release. “Next, we can consider new policy recommendations, hear innovative ideas and review which current procedures are effectively protecting students and educators.”

The first committee meeting was a daylong event, featuring numerous speakers flashing PowerPoints and an array of statistics and polling data. The message of the day: Be proactive, and take steps to intervene before a tragedy can occur.

North Carolina has never seen a Columbine-style school shooting, although an Aug. 30, 2006, incident at Orange High School came close when 22-year-old Alvaro Castillo opened fire on students. Two students were injured before school personnel tackled and subdued Castillo.

Castillo’s father wasn’t so lucky. Police found Rafael Castillo dead, shot several times at the family’s home. Castillo is now serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole.

Mass school shootings are actually declining, a point Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, makes in a column about the national school walkouts.

Thousands of students across the country walked out of schools March 14 to protest gun violence. Sanders said schools missed an opportunity to teach students about a hot-button political issue with deep roots in history.

Researchers from Northwestern University found that mass school shootings peaked in the 1990s and have since been declining. Sanders argues that gun violence — both fatal and non-fatal incidents — also is trending down since the 1990s.

The Department of Public Instruction releases annual reports on school crime and violence. For the 2016-17 school year, the reportable crime rate for high schools decreased by nearly 5 percent.

Possession of a firearm or powerful explosive and possession of a weapon decreased from the previous school year, too, but the number of bomb threats dramatically increased — from 69 to 89 for the 2016-17 school year. Assaults, including those resulting in serious injury or committed with a weapon, also increased.

Elliott Smith, special agent in charge with the State Bureau of Investigation, told the school safety committee the number of school-related threats have increased since the Parkland shooting. Smith said law enforcement is facing the difficult challenge of confronting rumors as they quickly spread over social media.

Kym Martin, director of the Center for Safer Schools, suggested a three-pronged approach to securing schools — focusing on physical security, mental health, and school climate.

“Keeping schools safe is not a one-size-fits-all proposition,” Martin said. “There’s not one single measure that you can put into place that will magically transform a school into the sanctuary of learning that our students deserve.”

While legislators expressed an interest in discussing a range of safety measures, presentations on mental health dominated the first meeting of the school safety committee.

“We have, I don’t think anybody would disagree, significant mental health issues in schools,” said Jim Deni, a professor at Appalachian State University and a past president of the N.C. School Psychology Association.

Deni wants to prevent fires from happening in the first place, instead of trying to extinguish raging conflagrations.

“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. Within the current mental health system, 75 percent of students struggling with mental health disorders or substance abuse won’t receive treatment.

Part of the problem, Deni said, is a lack of resources. The NCSPA recommends every school have a 1:700 school-psychologist-to-student ratio. North Carolina public schools have a ratio of 1:2,100.

Students are slipping through the cracks, says Deni, who said the state ranks 36th in the nation in prevalence of mental health disorders and access to care for youths.

“We have to have a balanced approach between psychological safety and physical safety,” Deni said. “We can’t shift this discussion to only physical safety — that approach will not end the increase in mental health problems.”

Greta Metcalf, who chairs the Mental Health Committee of the Task force for Safer Schools, echoed Deni. She pointed to the 55 percent of students living in poverty as further exacerbating the issue of mental health.

Metcalf called for legislators to consider trauma-sensitive schooling and integrating mental health services in an academic setting. Students may feel more inclined to seek help when it’s readily available on campus, instead of being taken out of class to see a therapist.

Some legislators worry about missing the point of the mental health discussion.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said people with mental health problems are more likely to be victimized than commit violent acts. Rep. MaryAnn Black, D-Durham, said people with mental health issues aren’t more prone to violence, but, she argued, this is a reason to focus on gun reform.

“As we move forward, I hope we’re also going to have a discussion about what needs to be done to protect the schools from guns being brought,” Black said.

During the committee meeting, Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake and Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, called for raising the age to buy assault rifles and banning bump stocks. Several other Democrats made it clear they were against arming teachers, even though no one brought it up during the presentations.

While Republicans have been reluctant to talk about gun reform, Democrats, including Gov. Roy Cooper, have called for stricter gun laws.

“When are we going to have the courage to put in background checks that work? We need to do what we can to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are dangerously mentally ill,” Cooper said in an address to the N.C. Healthcare Association. “You can take steps to protect the Second Amendment while still working to protect these kids and our country.”

The school safety committee has no shortage of ideas to discuss, whether they involve gun control measures, mental health services, or bolstering schools’ physical security. While legislators may disagree on the method, the end goal is the same: keeping students and teachers safe.

“It is an undeniable, fundamental right that precautions are taken to ensure that I do not go through my schooling days in fear,” Barnes told legislators. “My high school career should be spent worrying about the SAT, college applications, and what prom dress color I want and juggling my AP classes.”

Lindsay Marchello

Carolina Journal