Butler shooting shows us where we’ve fallen short

Students greet one another at the start of Monday night’s vigil at Butler High School in Matthews.
Students greet one another at the start of Monday night’s vigil at Butler High School in Matthews. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

To be honest, it felt like just a matter of time until it happened. Our nation’s school shooting epidemic finally reached Charlotte this week, as 16-year-old Butler High freshman Bobby McKeithen was shot and killed by a classmate after a fight in a school hallway spiraled out of control.

Families, friends and educators are left to grieve and wonder what they could have done differently. That question is impossible to answer with any kind of certainty. But one thing is clear: our students need better conflict resolution skills and ways of coping with their emotions. In public schools, our school counselors, psychologists, and social workers form the front lines for helping students develop those skills that will provide them with the foundation they need to be socially and emotionally healthy and allow us to maintain safe and productive environments for all.

In the wake of the Parkland school massacre in February, N.C. legislators created the House Select Committee on School Safety to explore what measures could be taken in our schools to keep our students safe. Unsurprisingly, they found that current student support services staffing ratios are far below what the industry sets as standards. For example, the nationally recommended ratio of students to school psychologists is 1:700, but our state average is 1:1857.

To its credit, the House committee recommended that public schools increase their number of support staff to meet national standards. It’s a great but also expensive recommendation requiring legislators who deeply value public education and want to do right by all children. Former N.C. General Assembly fiscal analyst and current Justice Center senior policy analyst Kristopher Nordstrom puts the price tag for increasing instructional support staff ratios to recommended levels at $640 million. Unfortunately, this summer our General Assembly budgeted only $10 million for increasing mental health support personnel and made schools apply for grants in order to get those funds. That’s not a typo; our state lawmakers gave us a tiny fraction of what we reasonably need.

Here in Mecklenburg County, we’ve been fortunate to have the support of our local government to help fill the gaps for what the state refuses to do, but it’s still not nearly enough. Last school year our support services ratios in CMS schools were far worse than the state averages. Our school district asked for and received $4.4 million in additional funding from the county, which will provide 10 psychologists, 33 school counselors, and 17 social workers. The additional staff members will make a difference, but it’s a drop in the bucket in a district that serves nearly 150,000 children.

We have no way of knowing if counseling or peer mediation could have prevented the devastating events that took place at Butler this week. But as we struggle to turn this loss of life into meaningful action, let’s focus on what concrete steps we can take to help students develop the social and emotional well being we know they all need to be successful in school. Let’s break with the mentality that has us perpetually accepting as fact that public education is all about making do with less than we need and take bold steps on behalf of kids who need us now more than ever.

Parmenter is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy. Email: justin.parmenter@hsgfellow.org