NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Leaders in New Hanover County met Thursday afternoon for a roundtable discussion regarding student safety in the classroom which tilted heavily toward addressing mental health treatment for students.
Before the discussion kicked off, Commissioner Woody White said the intent of the roundtable was to focus on two key areas: the school resource officer (SRO) program along with the hardening of schools and ways to improve mental health treatment for students.
SRO's and school safety
NHC Sheriff Ed McMahon said something he's learned since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 is that it's important for school SROs to be integral parts of the community.
"They gotta be part of the of the community, building relationships with the teachers, with the students," said McMahon. "They're the first line in there. Our goal is, we want to stop the problem. We want to get it before it becomes a major problem. It's gotta be about those kids trusting you and becoming part of that community."
However, McMahon said while SROs are guardians, they have to be ready to become warriors at a moment's notice.
"We have to train to prepare for the worst. We hope and pray it never happens, but if something happens, we are warriors," McMahon said. "When that warrior kicks in, you go to the threat and you eliminate the threat."
Ed Higgins, chair of the New Hanover County School Board of Education, said he believes the county has an outstanding program in place right now to protect students.
"Not only do we have SROs, we also have cameras in the schools and have put the door-locking systems in the elementary and middle schools," Higgins said. He admitted that adding similar locking systems to the county's high schools will be a challenge due to the school's "cumbersome" size, but those locks are on the way.
See something, say something
When referring to a rash of unsubstantiated threats against some county schools, Superintendent Tim Markley said school officials find out about those thanks to the willingness of people in the community, like parents and students, to come forward.
"If you see something, say something," Markley said. "Say something to an adult who can then take action. It starts with somebody who sees something that happens. See something, say something so we can take action and prevent something from happening."
Higgins said communication is key to student safety.
"We have had many copycat examples in New Hanover County this week. We do not take those lightly," Higgins explained. "They are addressed, they are investigated, and if it justifies criminal activity we've turned those over to the sheriff's office."
The mental health component
A majority of the discussion Thursday centered around getting students proper mental health care.
Judge J.H. Corpening told the roundtable about something that retired FBI behaviorist Larry Bonney told him regarding the importance of relationships in school shootings: "You can harden the schools as much as you want, you can put as many cameras in as you want, you can put as many school resource officers in as you want, but until you take care of what's inside the walls, the schools won't be safe. You got to take care of the kids."
Corpening said the county should take a hard look at adding mental health services at schools for parents who may have trouble getting children outside help.
"If we got that service in the school where the call can be 'Parent, will you consent for this treatment to happen at school?' then that could be game changer," Corpening said.
Corpening also wanted to focus on gaps in the community for the most at-risk youth so they can get proper mental health treatment.
"Those are kids who typically represent a danger to themselves or others and that's part of the conversation we gotta have," Corpening said. "As a court system, we got to be even more responsive of our young people who are risk-taking or living in abusive, neglectful homes."