Joined by state legislators, school administrators, law enforcement officials and members of the mental health professionals, State Superintendent Mark Johnson proclaimed September as School Safety Month in North Carolina, pointing to the importance of school safety and highlighting efforts to ensure all North Carolina students have a safe and productive school year.
Superintendent Johnson told the room of safety and mental health professionals assembled at Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison’s headquarters that school safety is personal for him this school year.
“I have been a student, a teacher, a local school board member and now I have the honor and privilege of serving as State Superintendent of North Carolina’s public schools,” Johnson said. “But everything becomes different for me this school year. This year, I became the parent of a child in our public schools when I dropped my daughter off to start kindergarten. As with every parent in the state, I want to know that she, her friends, and the teachers and staff will be safe, every single day.”
Harrison spoke about stiffer penalties now in statute for hoax threats made to schools, noting the increase in this type of crime.
“Hoax threats are a serious matter,” Harrison said. “Schools are our priority, so we expend a tremendous amount of resources to deal with threat tips. Teachers should be able to teach and not worry about anything else.”
Harrison joins Johnson and other school leaders in urging parents to talk to their children about school safety in general and hoax threats — especially on social media.
“We don’t want students to make hoax threats,” Harrison said. “But we do want them to report any threats they do hear about, so we can investigate.”
Johnson and the staff of the N.C. Center for Safer Schools, a part of the Department of Public Instruction, worked with the General Assembly, the N.C. Sheriffs Association, the Department of Public Safety and other groups through the spring and summer to study the most effective ways to increase school safety. Through many hours of staff work and the meetings of the House Select Committee on School Safety, the plan passed by the legislature with Johnson’s support included improvements in two main areas: school security and mental-health support.
The most immediate outcome of the changes in law is $35 million in funding for various school safety-related programs, outlined below. The $35 million includes $30 million in grants, of which $22 million has been awarded. The remainder of the grant awards will be announced soon.
Anonymous Tip Line and App
The General Assembly included $5 million for this fiscal year to develop an anonymous tip line and mobile application following a successful pilot program in five counties. This app will allow students, parents, educators and community members to report tips to school administrators and – where appropriate – law enforcement, all without embarrassment or fear of reprisal. During the pilot, types of incidents reported included bullying (39 percent), danger (25 percent), drugs (24 percent), fighting (5 percent), weapons (5 percent), and underage drinking (2 percent).
The pilot tip-line program led to several arrests and was viewed as an important tool by school administrators and local law enforcement. Citing experience gained from the pilot, Johnson asked for and received funding to develop a statewide app and to staff a 24/7 command center to support tips reported. The statewide app will be available by the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. School districts and charter schools may use the app or make available a substantially similar one.
School Safety Grants
School Resource Officers
The General Assembly appropriated $12 million for grants to districts and schools to fund School Resource Officers for elementary and middle schools (almost all high schools already have an SRO). SROs serve as law enforcement officers, law-related counselors, and law-related education instructors in schools. Students gain trust in law enforcement by interacting positively with their school’s SRO, and SROs provide both a deterrent to violence and a first response to events if they should occur.
Community Partners – Students in Crisis and Training to Increase School Safety
The purpose of the Community Partners Grant Program is to increase school safety by providing evidence-based and evidence-informed crisis services and training to help students develop healthy responses to trauma and stress. This year, $2 million will be dispersed for the Students in Crisis Grant Program, and $3 million in funding is available for Training to Increase School Safety grants.
School Safety Equipment
The School Safety Equipment Grant Program includes up to $3 million to schools for school safety equipment. This competitive grant program will inform state policymakers and lawmakers on specific needs for school safety equipment across the state.
School Mental Health Support Personnel
The new $10 million School Mental Health Support Personnel Grant Program provides all or a portion of the salary and benefits needed to employ additional school counselors, school nurses, school psychologists and school social workers.
Since the July 1 start of the state’s fiscal year, Johnson has awarded $22 million to enhance school safety and student mental health. In reviewing the grant applications, the department placed a priority on innovative approaches to improving students’ mental health and involving community organizations to better maximize schools’ own resources.
“Schools alone cannot ensure students’ safety,” Johnson said. “Teachers and other school staff members work hard to ensure safe environments, but they need our help. Students, parents, caregivers, and community and faith organizations all have a role to play.”
Johnson said he is distributing school safety tips to middle and high school students throughout the state this school year.