APEX Responding to concerns growing out of the Newtown school massacre, Gov. Pat McCrory announced Tuesday the creation of a new center to study ways to make North Carolina’s schools safer.
Appearing at Apex Middle School, McCrory said the new center will hold hearings and meet with school and law enforcement officials across the state to consider a range of options, including increased security and better mental health counseling in schools.
“We want to make sure these schoolchildren are not only safe here in Apex Middle School but are safe in every school in North Carolina,” McCrory said at a news conference, standing in front of a group of children in the school’s media center.
“We want to make sure teachers and administrators are safe,” McCrory said, adding that parents should know their children are safe when they drop them off at school.
McCrory said he was he was creating a Center for Safer Schools, headed by veteran Wake County school teacher Kym Martin, to serve as a clearinghouse to gather information on what schools across the state are doing to make their facilities safer. The center will be housed in the Department of Public Safety, and McCrory said he will provide funding for it when he unveils his budget recommendations on Wednesday.
The governor said he was not looking for a top-down solution from Raleigh, and said different school systems in different types of communities may offer varying solutions. He did emphasize the need for better mental health counseling in schools, noting that many of the recent shootings in the schools involved deeply emotionally troubled young people. When asked if he thought one outcome of the effort was likely to be an increased number of security guards, McCrory said he did not want to prejudge the process.
McCrory said eight forums will be held across the state. Kieran Shanahan, the state’s public safety secretary, said he hoped to have a series of recommendations for the governor in May. He said he was uncertain whether they would need legislative approval.
The event included officials from various agencies, including June Atkinson, the superintendent of public instruction, Aldona Wos, the secretary of health and human services, whose agency is involved in mental health, and Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.
Meanwhile, a coalition of 60 advocacy groups issued a series of recommendations Tuesday that stress improving mental health rather than more armed guards.
“Mental and behavioral health issues have played a role in every mass school shooting from Newtown to Columbine,” said the report by the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children.
“If we want to prevent future incidents of violence, improving mental and behavioral health care in schools and the larger community should be our focus.”
The group stressed the hiring of more school psychologists, counselors and social workers to meet nationally recognized ratios; ensuring that children have access to mental health screening; and prohibit support staff from serving as teachers when they should be working with students on behavioral issues.
There has been a slight decline in school personnel that serves troubled students as a result of cutbacks made in response to the recession, according to Atkinson, the schools superintendent.
The number of guidance counselors in North Carolina schools – funded by all sources, state, federal and local – had declined from 3,985 in 2008-2009 to 3,916 in the current school year. The number of psychologists have dropped from 787 to 772, and the number of social workers from 932 to 907. This was a time when the student population grew by about 30,000 students.
The Covenant said campus security guards should be limited to trained professional law enforcement officers and not community volunteers.
The Covenant also urged that panic buttons be placed in every classroom and office that alerts law enforcement officers in the case of an emergency, establish one main entrance for visitors with a secondary set of doors, and provide crisis training for staff.
A bill has been introduced in the legislature that would create the position of “school safety marshal,” allowing people who complete a new state-designated course to carry a gun at schools. It would be up to local school boards to designate whether such school marshals would be paid employees or volunteers.