The General Assembly launched a task force to identify how North Carolina can increase school safety nearly a year ago, in the wake of a deadly shooting at a Florida high school.
This House Select Committee on School Safety has released a draft report with its recommendations. Both sides of the aisle are likely to find them lacking — but there are some nuggets of good policy in here.
In this article, we’ll examine all of the task force proposals, both the powerful and the kind of silly. We’ve listed them in order from the best idea to the worst. Then we’ll explore some gaps that can still be filled.
1) Create “threat assessment teams” in each school.
This was part of a 2017 school safety bill that didn’t pass, and the House committee recommends bringing it back. The threat assessment team would consist of teachers, administrators, law enforcement and counselors or psychologists, and serve to evaluate what risk is posed by any threats communicated directly or indirectly. They would have access to the anonymous tip lines and be able to pull health and criminal records on students under watch.
This is the best proposal of the bunch, but it doesn’t go far enough. I’ll explain why later in the piece.
2) Study a mental health screening process to identify school children at risk of harming themselves or others.
North Carolina students are definitely over tested, but there is some definite merit to this idea. Often, there are red flags readily noticeable before a student reaches the point of violence. The tricky part is always in the details: Who would conduct the test, overworked teachers or limited numbers of psychologists? Who would interpret the data? What would happen if somebody is deemed to be a risk? How do you prevent already at-risk students from being overrepresented in this category?
This idea should move forward.
3) Expand school safety grants to districts.
The $35 million appropriated in the 2018 budget helped school districts across the state recruit more officers, install more security systems and hire more psychologists. The House committee recommends expanding this to $53 million in 2019. This is a good idea — but I think there’s a better way to approach this, which I’ll explore later in this piece.
4) Set training requirements for school resource officers.
This would create a standard initial training curriculum and continuing education programs for officers working in schools. Right now, training is haphazard. After school resource officers responded poorly in Parkland, Florida, this is an easy step to take.
5) Make the House committee on school safety permanent.
This is a no-brainer. Keep it going.
6) Beef up the Center for Safer Schools
This proposal was also scrapped in 2017. Right now, there exists such a center, but its duties are ill-defined. Basically, this legislation would direct the Center for Safer Schools to be a clearinghouse for school safety information, administer security grants and work with law enforcement.
This isn’t a terrible idea, but I’m always hesitant about building new bureaucracy. Could these goals be better achieved without a new, expanded center?
7) Require “civic responsibility” education in high schools.
This is a good idea, but it feels a little flippant in the context of school safety. “Traditional” schools that emphasize civic and morals are gaining momentum across the state, and every child could benefit from learning about their place in society. However, the House committee would have been much better off addressing this in a broader overhaul of K-12 curriculum.
8) Expand first aid education, including AED use and bleeding control.
This is the worst proposal of the entire report. Again, it’s not a bad idea on its face. Boy Scouts learn first aid for a reason. But in the context of school safety, it reads as ridiculous. We’re going to make our schools safer by teaching kids how to put a tourniquet on their classmate after they get shot? This one is best left on the cutting room floor.
Two different approaches the General Assembly should consider
1) Further strengthen threat assessment teams.
Creating these teams is the best recommendation presented by the House committee. But it can, and should, go further.
First, the state should provide funding specifically designated to hire new employees to serve on the threat assessment team. Throwing together some teachers and administrators who already have a lot on their plate is not a recipe for success. But hiring a school resource officer or Behavioral Management Technician who is primarily responsible to the threat assessment team would help make this effective.
Further, the threat assessment teams should be directed to be proactive instead of reactive. It’s not enough for the this team to just respond to tips and threats sent to them. They need to have the skills and resources to seek them out.
One of the top tools police detectives use these days is social media. They can often find out who stole a car just by looking at public postings from the thief bragging about it. A similar “counterterrorism” approach can be taken to school safety. The threat assessment teams should be participating in online forums where their students are living their lives and seeking out problems before they get reported.
2) Set a baseline of safety measures
School districts in North Carolina have a wide range of preparedness level for security threats. That’s one reason why the safety grants are such a good idea. Local districts best know where their needs are and can deploy money more efficiently.
However, the General Assembly can take a powerful step in setting a baseline level of security measures and making sure each district meets them. This should include key fob locks on all doors and a visitor management system in each lobby. North Carolina set a goal of having wireless internet at every school — and achieved it. A similar approach should be taken to school safety.