N.C. lawmakers say school safety bill is nation's most comprehensive

04/01/2013 11:49 AM

04/01/2013 11:49 AM

North Carolina lawmakers on Thursday unveiled what they call the nation’s most comprehensive response to the Newtown shootings, a bipartisan package designed to add more law enforcement officers in elementary and middle schools and install panic alarms in every classroom.

The $34 million measure also puts an emphasis on adding more school psychologists and social workers in the next two years as it mandates additional crisis drills and training to prepare for violent attacks such as those in Connecticut and Colorado.

“In light of Sandy Hook and Columbine, we have been very fortunate in this state that we have not had such instances. But that doesn’t mean we (are) immune,” said Democratic Rep. Marvin Lucas, a retired Cumberland County school principal. “This plan serves as a comprehensive measure to insure that we work to keep our kids safe.”

The Newtown shootings in December spurred many states to take a look at school safety and North Carolina’s bill debuted on the same day that President Barack Obama cited the massacre of 20 children and six adults to renew his call for gun restrictions and police unsealed warrants revealing the shooter stockpiled weapons in his home.

State Rep. Bryan Holloway, the leading Republican bill sponsor and a former teacher, said the legislation goes further than any other state since the shooting. “North Carolina may be setting a model for other states to look at,” he said.

The effort is designed to dovetail with Gov. Pat McCrory’s Center for Safer Schools, an initiative he launched earlier this month to create a resource for enhancing school security.

Ronald Stephens, the National School Safety Center executive director, applauded the multi-pronged approach. “My compliments go the North Carolina legislature for being both proactive and reactive in making crisis prevention as high of a priority as crisis response and crisis resolution,” he said after reviewing the bill.

In the aftermath of the shooting, calls for new policies to tighten security grew loud, particularly those for armed officers in schools. At least three states have approved measures to study school safety and others are considering more detailed legislation. Earlier this month, South Dakota became the first state to directly allow teachers and employees to carry guns in school.

Kristin Beller, a fourth-grade teacher at Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh, said a few parents walked worried students into her school immediately after the Sandy Hook shootings. But a recent discussion about school safety precautions and a lockdown drill helped ease concerns.

Senate bill path may differ

Compared with some proposals, Beller said she prefers the direction in the North Carolina bill. “I think this is a good place to be considering some of the extreme ideas that came out right after the Newtown incident,” she said.

House Speaker Thom Tillis initiated the effort that led to the bill. His office declined to make the Cornelius Republican available for an interview but called the bill a starting point.

A House education committee expects to consider the legislation as soon as next week. But the path in the Senate may differ.

Republican Dan Soucek, the Senate education committee co-chairman, said his chamber has a similar urgency to pass school security legislation this session. But he prefers a measure that allows trained school employees to act as a marshal or sentinel and carry a firearm, a component of the South Dakota law.

“One of the challenges is ... we have limited resources,” he said. “So I’m looking for more of a revenue-neutral thing.”

Money for officers

The most expensive part of the House bill offers $20 million over two years to give local districts two-to-one matching grants for hiring school resource officers. The districts would decide whether to arm them.

Another $5 million is set aside for grants to hire school psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors. And the final $4 million is earmarked to put a panic alarm or similar system in every classroom in the state by July 2015.

As a retired police chief, Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican, said the measure will greatly improve response to school tragedies and give parents across North Carolina “a sigh of relief.”

“There is no greater problem we face in most people’s minds now days than ... these hideous situations that develop when somebody loses control and takes advantage of something like a school full of kids,” he said.

But Graham Satisky, a Moore Square Middle School parent, said the bill needs to focus on the counselors to provide mental health services to the children, rather than armed guards.

“We don’t need an officer to check people into the schools,” she said. “I think there are better ways to spend the money.”

House Bill 452 also would require each school district to establish an anonymous tip line, place crisis kits in every school and give local law enforcement agencies maps and keys for all business. It mandates annual crisis drill at schools, along with a district-wide exercise every two years.

As part of the crisis planning, lawmakers restored a requirement for schools to create a safety plan that was “unintentionally” eliminated by lawmakers last session, Holloway said.

Russ Smith, the security director for the Wake County school system, said the district already does much of what the legislation would require. Of the system’s 169 schools, law enforcement officers are present in 23 high schools, 32 middle schools and one elementary school. But 111 schools don’t have any officer or security.

He said the legislation may help get more officers in elementary schools. “It’s a pretty comprehensive approach that covers a lot of areas,” Smith said.

At Moore Square elementary in downtown Raleigh, an armed Wake County sheriff’s deputy patrols the hallways and the doors always remain locked.

Principal Kengie Bass said his students and teachers feel safe but he welcomes lawmakers putting more attention on the issue.

“Anything that can make us safer is a big benefit,” he said.

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