A two-pronged defense: Local, state leaders discuss boosting security, mental health to keep kids safe at school

A two-pronged defense: Local, state leaders discuss boosting security, mental health in schools

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The Select Committee on School Safety of the North Carolina General Assembly met Friday — but not in Raleigh.

Instead, the representatives met in the Wilmington City Council Chambers and heard from local law enforcement and school officials on what New Hanover County is doing to keep students safe in school.

Earlier this year, the general assembly approved a one-time fund of $28 million for school safety initiatives across the state. Grants included in that funding focused on “hardening” schools, or increasing the security measures, and providing more school resource officers (SROs). Other grants focused on providing resources for students with mental health needs.

Chief Deputy K.W. Sarvis with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office said the increase in SROs not only provides more security personnel, but allows students to connect with law enforcement in a positive way.

Sarvis said the SRO program “does not need to do anything but grow.”

New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley said schools have always had student safety as a priority, but the district began a comprehensive safety audit after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Over the last year, Markley said, the district has been revisiting that audit and the plan that came out of it to make sure everything is still up to date. Additionally, he said, with the ongoing construction throughout the district, NHCS have been able to add security measures to existing buildings, as well as design new schools to be safer. Those measures include changing carpool flows, requiring badges to enter buildings and designing stronger entrances in the first place.

This fall NHCS added five new SROs and three new mental health professionals. Markley said it’s the combination of those two things — not just adding locks or reducing the number of doors — that makes a school system safer.

“It’s truly a community partnership when it comes to safety," he said. Our best resource continues to be our folks within our schools, and the willingness to build those relationships and to prevent things from happening."

New Hanover County works with Coastal Horizons to provide students with in-school care for mental health concerns, as well as resources for when they are away from school.

A New Hanover High School student was also at the meeting. She said she has felt first-hand the fear of her school not being as secure as she thinks it could be. She said when crossing the catwalk over Market Street, her class encountered a strange man, and had the SRO not been with them they would have been helpless.

Markley said reducing the number of entrances and making schools more physically safe will take time, so in the meantime they are working on providing students with more resources to report suspicious activity.

That’s where parents come in.

Last year the county pushed a “See Something, Say Something,” campaign, and continues to focus on that message this year. Sarvis said after the 2017 shooting in Parkland, Florida, deputies investigated 70 tips of suspicious activity.

Markley said keeping those lines of communication open is key.

“Talk to your students. Talk to the folks in the schools so you know what’s going on,” he said. “If you suspect anything, talk to us.”

Going forward, Markley said he hopes the legislators saw during the meeting that the work being done is worth supporting, and that they will sponsor legislation and funding on more than just a one-time basis.

“The funding that came from the legislature was valuable, but it was non recurring," he said. "So it needs to become part of the regular budget as we move forward.”

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