More than 1.5 million students return to North Carolina’s public schools today — and they’ll be joined by dozens more school resource officers, psychologists and physical fortifications.

Though the wheels of government often turn slowly, the state has moved quickly to distribute $35 million in school safety money appropriated by the General Assembly over the summer through the 2018 budget.

Applications for school safety grants were due in July or early August — allowing districts to start implementing the new security measures for the school year beginning today.

That’s materialized into newly hired school resource officers and psychologists along with more technologically advanced security systems across North Carolina.

The moves came in the wake of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Within days, the General Assembly had convened a 41-member task force to consider ways to beef up school safety and security across public school campuses.

However, most school districts in North Carolina are still underprepared for an active shooter situation, security experts say.

There are also no clear benchmarks for campus safety, and even schools within districts vary widely in how secure their campuses are.

What school safety measures did the General Assembly fund?

Primarily, grants for school districts to hire more school resource officers and psychologists, to contract with nonprofits and to physically fortify their campuses.

  • $12 million to hire or train school resource officers in elementary and middle schools. High schools generally already have them.
  • $10 million to hire more school psychologists and other mental health professionals.
  • $5 million to help set up an anonymous school safety tip line in all districts and charter schools.
  • $3 million for physical safety improvements on campuses.
  • $3 million for school districts to hire community nonprofits to create mental health training for students.
  • $2 million for school districts to hire community nonprofits to help “students in crisis,” including behavioral therapy and peer-to-peer mentoring programs.

North Carolina stopped short of considering any gun control legislation as advocated for by Gov. Roy Cooper. The state also did not seriously take up any bills that would allow teachers to carry weapons.

What does this look like in practice?

Nearly every North Carolina school district is encouraging families to use new phone tip lines to communicate worries about specific threats.

Many school districts are also setting up buzz-in systems where school personnel use a camera to see who’s at the door and control who enters. Some are taking the tech a step further and using a rapid-check background system to run visitor names through a database for threats.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has hired 60 new psychologists, counselors and social workers. An undisclosed number of campuses have added locks, fencing, and additional cameras.

The district — the state’s second-largest — has also launched a program to train all 18,000 employees in active shooter survival. Five large schools across the district will hold five live training exercises per week in the gym or auditorium.

From CMS

Other districts have cobbled together a patchwork of solutions.

  • Wake County, the state’s largest public school district, now has a buzz-in system with cameras at all 187 of its campuses.
  • Cumberland County Schools is now recruiting “school angels,” volunteers who will walk around campuses with radios and make sure gates and doors are locked and communicate any potential threats.
  • Union County spent $75,000 on a new visitor check-in system and added 18 new positions for psychologists and counselors.
  • Cabarrus County expanded its buzz-in system to all campuses over the summer and launched a digital check-in system, plus spent $15,000 for new locks.
  • Johnston County invested heavily in cameras and fencing. One particular elementary school installed 24 new security cameras, fenced off a playground, added key fob entrances, held a crisis response training and positioned monitors by front entrances.
  • Vance County held a safety summit, trying to build closer ties with police and sheriff’s office.
  • Harnett County required all schools to set up safety teams, which will be assessing security needs for upgrades by 2020.
  • McDowell County added gates and a guardhouse to keep cars from entering campus without permission.

Suburban and small urban districts hired the most new SROs.

Why? The large urban districts like Mecklenburg and Wake have already started investing in more school resource officers in their lower grades.

School districts also needed to have the free cash to hire officers, as the grant program required a local match. The state provided $2 for every $1 spent locally.

  • Cabarrus County: $699,993
  • Cumberland County: $499,995
  • Gaston County: $499,995
  • Pitt County: $466,662
  • New Hanover County: $380,413
  • Johnston County: $366,663
  • Wayne County: $366,663
  • Buncombe County: $333,333
  • Onslow County: $333,333
  • Rowan County: $314,734
  • Brunswick County: $299,997

Cumberland County is using the money to bump up the number of SROs in elementary schools from 6 to 21, serving 52 campuses.

This doesn’t mean that large districts haven’t added security personnel. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, hired 5 new officers to focus on training. They just didn’t go through the grant program.

The full impact of the $35 million is still unknown. By April 1, 2019, the Department of Public Instruction is required to report out where all the money went.

The department was only able to provide Longleaf Politics a list of which school districts received money through the school resource officer grant program. You can see that list here.

North Carolina needs a goal like the one it set with wireless internet.

While progress on campus security has been swift, different parts of North Carolina are widely disparate in actions, communication and training. Wake and Forsyth counties have held school safety public meetings, while Charlotte has not.

North Carolina doesn’t have much in the way of a model policy or best practices, security experts say. School districts — and then individual principals — are given wide latitude.

“There is a mindset of ‘it can’t happen here’ and parents assume someone else is taking care of it when it comes to safety in school,” said Carolyn McGrath, a Charlotte parent and security professional.

A decade ago, the General Assembly set the goal of having every public school wired for wireless internet. That finally came true, making North Carolina the first in the nation to hit that benchmark.

The General Assembly has yet to make any similar moves in the campus safety arena.

A reasonable goal would be to say that every public school should at least have a buzz-in system by the year 2020.

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