Mental health dominated the conversation at last week's school safety roundtable in New Hanover County, and that same issue dominated the pages of a Safer Schools Task Force report commissioned in 2013.
The report came just after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Local leaders held a summit to find ways to make schools safer.
District Attorney Ben David and Chief District Court Judge J. Corpening created the Safer Schools Task Force of New Hanover and Pender County, a 20-member group comprised of researchers, social workers, educators, school counselors and social workers.
Nearly five years later, Corpening says of the more than 20 recommendations in that report, a small percentage have been implemented.
"The main issues we have that have not been completely addressed are staffing with student and support services. We are still falling short of the national standards," Corpening said. "Last year we got 125 people trained. It has to be a priority. Then let's look at staffing needs. Trillium has been willing to partner with us and do this training virtually for free for the school system. All it is is eight hours. That's all we are asking for."
Corpening says the youth mental health first aid training recommended in the report is the biggest priority and still the biggest shortcoming.
"We need the people who are in the classrooms, in the cafeteria, in the hallways, all the custodians trained on mental health first aid," he said. "They see the kids. They know the kids. They are the ones that will see a kid that is in crisis, that is acting differently, that has some concerns and with this training, they will know how to respond."
Corpening went on to state the National Association of School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist for every 500-700 students. That recommendation also has not been implemented.
Other recommendations in the report include safer schools leadership. The task force recommended a two-year, fifth judicial district position should be established to oversee all recommendations in the report and their implementation. Corpening said that has also not been accomplished.
Corpening says there is no one to blame for the lack of implementation.
"There is not one person responsible for implementing the document. It is all of ours collectively to come together and do the right thing for our kids," Corpening said.
On a positive note, Corpening said there are some accomplishments, including school resource officer (SRO) training, more adults and volunteers — some of whom are parents — and teen court, which works to keep first-time juvenile offenders out of the court system.
"Also, after the report, the school system installed cameras, door buzzers, and door locks on all elementary schools. That was a huge undertaking that was accomplished," Corpening said.
According to Corpening, 17 schools also now have adult watchdog groups, which was one of the report's recommendations.
Corpening said the task force is meeting again this week to discuss where these implementations stand five years later.
"What we are seeing across the country right now and the response to Parkland, Florida, has struck a nerve perhaps more than any other school shooting since Columbine," he said. "We have our high schoolers now out there talking about it. My advocacy is about making things better. The kids deserve it, so it's time we get to the standards. We are all committed to this."
You can read the full Safer Schools Task Force report in the PDF below.
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