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Students are back in school, and with an extra $35 million for security and mental health help

All around North Carolina, public school students are starting this new school year with more school resource officers and mental health counselors on campus to provide help, and potentially stop the next school shooting from happening here.

The head of the state’s 115 school districts and various charter schools, State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson, held a press conference Tuesday at the Wake County Sheriff’s Office with several fellow Republican politicians to remind people that the Republican-led state legislature previously approved $35 million for improved school safety measures this year.

The push for the money came in the wake of the mass shooting earlier this year at Parkland High School in Florida. It will be used for physical improvements like fences and new doors, as well as for new staff like counselors and armed guards.

“We know it’s not just going to take law enforcement,” Johnson said. “It’s going to take addressing students’ mental health issues as well. So we also were able to award more grant money out across the state for innovative mental health programs. Programs where we can identify students, identify their needs and get them the help they need.”

Johnson also said school officials are working on developing an app for people to anonymously report rumors that concern them or anything they’ve seen regarding school safety. It’s expected to be ready next year.

The extra $35 million that the legislature approved for this school year is less than the $130 million Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had asked the legislature to spend. The legislature also put that $35 million in the form of grants, instead of permanent funding, meaning the money is only guaranteed for one year.

During this spring’s budget debate Republican legislators said the use of one-time grants was necessary to figure out what schools really needed, before making permanent investments, The News & Observer reported. And on Tuesday Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, a top state budget writer, said legislators are on a statewide “listening tour” to get input on how to expand school safety funding in next year’s budget.

“We are going to add to that,” he said.

It has traditionally been up to individual school districts — not the state — to come up with the money for school resource officers and other security measures. Schools are also allowed to have unpaid, volunteer armed guards on campus because of a law the state passed in 2013, following the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut.

But no schools in North Carolina used that law until earlier this year, after the Parkland school shooting, when a few rural North Carolina school districts took steps to approve armed volunteers. None of the state’s more urban districts, which have enough money to pay school resource officers, have shown interest in the volunteer guard program, The News & Observer reported.

But some parents in Wake County are also concerned about professional school resource officers.

Several community activists interrupted the press conference Tuesday to question Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison about whether his deputies should be working on school grounds at all. And one asked whether increasing the number of school resource officers around the state would worsen North Carolina’s issues with the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the term for a system in which school suspensions or arrests lead children to fall behind in class and eventually drop out, before turning to a life of crime.

According to a News & Observer report from 2015, schools in North Carolina gave out suspensions more than schools in most other states. Minority students here are also far more likely to be suspended than white students, The News & Observer reported earlier this year. Racial disparities are prevalent in classrooms all around North Carolina, according to EducationNC, which reported that in the 2016-17 school year more than 80 percent of teachers were white but less than half of students were white.

Adding to the pressure is that teens here are far more likely to face jail time for classroom outbursts or bus stop scuffles than just about anywhere else. North Carolina remains one of only two states in the nation to treat all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, even for minor offenses.

However, the new Raise The Age law passed last year will put an end to that in December 2019. In addition to modernizing the state’s approach, that change is also expected to save the state millions of dollars.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran
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