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House School Safety Committee unveils new recommendations

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, presides over the House Rules Committee in 2016. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, presides over the House Rules Committee in 2016. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

After months of meeting across the state, the House Select Committee on School Safety met for the final time Thursday to approve another round of recommendations to make schools safer.

The school safety committee was formed in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students dead. Since the committee formed, lawmakers have approved more than $35 million for mental health services, additional school resource officers, and security equipment upgrades.

The committee met several times across the state this year before finally meeting in Raleigh for the last time to approve a set of final recommendations. Legislation for them won’t appear until next year.

“Some of the things that we’ll be providing today may raise eyebrows, but the effort here is a positive effort to move forward,” Co-Chairman Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said. “I think if nothing else it raises the awareness that we have to start talking about this.”

Lawmakers unanimously approved six recommendations at the Dec. 6 meeting.

The recommendations are:

  • Further study the development of a statewide system for mental health screening of school children in North Carolina.
  • Require a civic responsibility education in elementary, middle, and high school. This would include teaching students about respect for school personnel, responsibility for school safety, service to others, and good citizenship.
  • Expand the first aid training requirement for students to include training in use of the automatic external defibrillator and bleeding control.
  • Continuing and expanding the school safety grants from $30 million in recurring and nonrecurring funds in 2018 to more than $53 million in recurring and nonrecurring funds for 2019.
  • Reintroduce school safety legislation which didn’t pass in the 2017 legislative session. This includes establishing threat assessment teams and peer-to-peer support programs, establishing vulnerability assessments for all school buildings, and requiring all public schools in a county to comply with the county school board’s state of emergency plan.
  • Form a House Study Committee on School Safety during the 2019-20 legislative session to study other ways to improve school safety.

Before lawmakers approved the recommendations, they heard a presentation from Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Superintendent Clayton Wilcox. The superintendent talked about the aftermath of the Oct. 16 shooting at Butler High School in Matthews where a 16-year-old boy was killed.

The school district made changes after the shooting, including starting random screenings and bag searches, increasing investment in student support, and expanding video surveillance systems.

“While we don’t want to be in that airport-style security, we believe that we have to be in the 21st century,” Wilcox said. “We know we have to look carefully at what kids bring into school.”

The CMS superintendent said the model of “see something, say something” has been working. The day after the Oct. 16 incident, a CMS student reported seeing a gun on campus. The incident was handled by authorities before anything could happen.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, suggested lawmakers should discuss gun access in future school safety committee meetings. While several Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper have advocated new gun control legislation to address school violence, Republican lawmakers have opted instead to focus on mental health services and physical security measure, including funding for more SROs.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, cautioned lawmakers that while it’s important to fund mental health support, the state doesn’t have a bottomless pot of money to draw from.

“Where should we begin as a state?” Horn said. “Should we just try to spread it wide and thin or should be taking some deeper dives in some areas than others?”

Wilcox said any investment in the social/emotional health of kids is wise.

“I would take a careful look at what you’re about to do as a legislature in terms of tax relief and before you provide that relief to the citizens of the state I would make sure you’ve fully funded the mental health needs of young people across the state,” Wilcox said. “I think our kids are in crisis. I think you need to step up.”