As teachers and students return, state and federal lawmakers are still failing to address school safety

As teachers and students return, state and federal lawmakers are still failing to address school safety

School has started again for most North Carolina children. And last week, Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education was debating whether schools could use federal funds to purchase guns for teachers. The confluence of these events is a great reminder of how badly both state and federal lawmakers have failed to seriously address school safety.

Lawmakers have convened school safety commissions and study committees in Washington, DC and here in Raleigh. Yet these groups have largely failed to address the underlying causes of school violence, leaving our schools vulnerable to further mass shooting events.

The surest way to reduce mass killings at schools is to address the underlying causes of these horrific events. That is, schools must be provided with the personnel and resources necessary to address students’ mental health and behavioral issues while creating a school climate that is inclusive and welcoming for all students.

Of course, saying that schools need to be empowered to address the underlying causes of school violence is much easier than doing the hard work of confronting student mental health. First, schools must be provided with the resources necessary to identify and treat students’ mental health needs. That is, schools must have the school-based nurses, psychologists, and counselors necessary to identify and effectively treat student needs. Second, all school personnel must commit to creating an inclusive, nurturing school environment where all students feel welcome and safe. All educators and staff must work together to identify behavioral issues, limit bullying and other abuses, and identify and address potential threats. This work requires additional funding for personnel and training, and requires many schools to re-focus their practices towards the social and emotional needs of their students.

Unfortunately, neither federal nor state leaders appear interested in providing the resources necessary to meet students’ needs. DeVos’s Federal School Safety Commission won’t issue recommendations until the end of this year, but many of its meetings have focused on “hardening” school buildings and arming teachers.

This focus on “hardening” our schools is unlikely to protect students. Many of the schools where shootings have occurred have employed armed school resource officers, metal detectors, active shooter drills, and access control measures. In fact, it’s possible that these approaches are not just unhelpful, but actually harmful. Prison-like buildings can instill in students the belief that their school is an unsafe place where violence lurks around every corner, while school resource officers are associated with higher referrals to the justice system for Black and Latinx students.

Unlike DeVos’s federal commission, North Carolina’s House Select Committee on School Safety took a more serious, balanced approach. In particular, the Student Health Working Group made clear that North Carolina’s substandard staffing ratios for nurses, psychologists, counselors, and social workers are an impediment towards creating safe, welcoming school environments, and lessens the chances for identifying threats before they emerge.

However, the work of the House Select Committee failed to meaningfully translate to needed resources for North Carolina schools. The General Assembly’s 2018 budget prioritized the hardening of our schools over addressing student health needs. More than half of the funding provided as part of the 2018 school safety plan has been dedicated towards school safety equipment (i.e., metal detectors, surveillance cameras, etc.), anonymous tip lines, and increasing the number of armed law officers in middle and elementary schools.

In contrast, very little has been dedicated towards providing schools with the additional nurses, psychologists, and counselors necessary to meet student needs. The 2018 budget included just $10 million of nonrecurring competitive grants to hire additional school mental health support personnel. Nonrecurring competitive grants are the most inefficient way to hire such important personnel. Even though the school year has already started, these funds have yet to be awarded. And it will be several months longer before awardees will be able to recruit and hire candidates, as few candidates will be willing to take a time-limited job for which funding stops at the end of this school year. Even if districts had been able to hire high-quality candidates before the start of school, the available funds support just 132 positions across our state’s 115 school districts.

Even the Governor’s proposal to increase funding by $40 million (which at least provided the funding on a recurring basis), falls well short of what’s needed to meet student needs. Increasing funding for school support personnel to industry-standard levels would require boosting spending by over $640 million – more than twice current funding levels for certified support staff.

None of the funding provided as part of the 2018 budget helps educators assess and improve school climate. Nor have lawmakers examined the impact of federal and state accountability systems that prioritize narrow academic measures at the expense of social and emotional health.

And of course, neither the federal, nor state school safety efforts have examined the role of our country’s lax gun laws. Teen mental health is not an exclusively American problem. Yet the United States, with its uniquely high gun availability, is the only country that regularly experiences mass casualty shootings in its schools. The student leaders from March for Our Lives provide several common-sense proposals that would make it harder for those wishing to harm students to get their hands on mass-killing machines.

Ultimately, serious efforts to minimize school violence will require resources. Districts need money to hire nurses, psychologists, and counselors. They need money to assess and improve each school’s climate to ensure every school is safe and welcoming for all students. They need money for training on how to identify and address potential threats.

And this unwillingness to spend money on school safety is where federal and state-level failures truly emerge. Last December’s federal tax cut will cost approximately $1.5 trillion over the next decade. State income tax cuts for 2019 will drain $900 million from state coffers. Both tax cuts primarily deliver gains to wealthy households and profitable corporations. That money could have funded the necessary personnel and training to boost school safety if politicians had simply prioritized the needs of children over the needs of the donor class.

The state’s decision to prioritize tax cuts over school safety is particularly egregious. Over the last several years, the state has directed a declining share of its resources towards public schools. North Carolina’s school funding effort now ranks 47th out of 50 states. If North Carolina made just an average effort to fund its schools, we’d be spending an additional $3 billion on our schools – enough to address our schools’ public safety needs, restore funding for supplies and textbooks, and create a teacher pay plan that is competitive with other professions.

“There’s a great sense of urgency, both the speaker’s office and the senate president’s office have expressed a great deal of interest in making our schools safer,” said Rep. David Lewis, Co-Chair of the House Select Committee on School Safety. He and his colleagues’ budget priorities say otherwise.

Kris Nordstrom is an education policy consultant with the North Carolina Justice Center.