Education

Should the National Guard be deployed to protect NC schools?

National Guard soldiers monitor a peaceful march through uptown Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 23, 2016. North Carolina school board members were asked if they'd support placing the National Guard at some schools to try to boost security.
National Guard soldiers monitor a peaceful march through uptown Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 23, 2016. North Carolina school board members were asked if they'd support placing the National Guard at some schools to try to boost security. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The National Guard has been called on over the years to restore the peace after natural disasters and other emergencies, but few North Carolina school board members think it's time to deploy soldiers at schools as a security measure.

Only 18 percent of the 292 school board members who took a recent N.C. School Boards Association survey said they'd support deploying the National Guard as a school safety option. School board members were far more supportive of other ideas in the survey, such as increasing funding for mental health services, school counselors and school resource officers.

"School districts for the most part focus on educating children and naturally providing safety measures for them," said Minnie Forte-Brown, president of the NCSBA board of directors and a member of the Durham school board. "We weren’t surprised at all there was not as much consensus for bringing in the National Guard and arming teachers."

The fatal shooting in February of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., has sparked a national debate on what should be done to make schools safer. Leanne Winner, a NCSBA lobbyist, said a state lawmaker, who she declined to name, wanted the group to survey school boards about deploying the National Guard.

Wake County school board vice chairman Jim Martin said he was surprised to see the question about the National Guard when he took the survey.

“It’s not a a strategy that would even come across my radar screen," he said. "I believe it would increase fear and not bring safety.”

Some state lawmakers have also recently proposed deploying the National Guard to provide emergency help for the state’s critically understaffed prisons.

The North Carolina National Guard is an all-volunteer force of nearly 12,000 soldiers and airmen. Members work for the Guard part-time, serving 39 days a year.

The idea of deploying the National Guard at schools has been brought up before.

After a gunman killed 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, then U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer introduced a bill that would allow the federal government to reimburse governors who use National Guard troops to keep schools safe. The California Democrat's bill died in Congress.

After the Florida shooting, U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat, said that National Guard should be used to protect schools.

"Where were the legislators coming up with off-the-wall suggestions now?" said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. "Why were they not reaching out to schools and school security specialists the day before Parkland saying what do you need?"

Trump said the problem with using the National Guard is that members are not trained to work in a school setting around students.

Many school board members in the survey had reservations about calling out the military with 57 percent saying they're opposed to deploying the National Guard even if it is requested by the schools. Of the rest, 25 percent had no opinion and 18 percent were in support of the option.

School board members were also not supportive of arming teachers. According to the survey, 70 percent said they're opposed to designated teachers having guns at schools. That's compared to 21 percent in support and 9 percent with no opinion.

The school board results are in line with a recent Elon University/News & Observer/Charlotte Observer poll of teachers that found 78 percent thought it was a bad idea to arm educators. Even if only a few teachers were armed and had received extensive training, 69 percent of teachers said they'd still be opposed to the idea.

Forte-Brown of NCSBA said it's possible that some individual school districts might want to arm teachers and request the National Guard.

The school board survey showed more support for other safety options:

Increase funding for mental health services — 99 percent;

Provide state funding for capital improvements to school safety such as fencing, bulletproof glass and locks — 94 percent;

Increase state funding to provide more school resource officers - 94 percent;

Increase state funding to provide more school counselors — 90 percent;

Make it a felony to threaten mass violence on school property — 84 percent.

"The National Guard is an acute response measure," said Martin, the Wake school board member. "The work we need to be about is prevention. That’s why we need more counselors and social workers."

Forte-Brown said the NCSBA will lobby state legislators to back the items that drew the most support in the survey. The House Select Committee on School Safety held its first meeting last week.

"I'm hoping they (legislators) will take a look at the data and notice everything, including the marches from Saturday with what our students are so ably talking about," Forte-Brown said. "I hope they’re listening to all that and clearly the position that the North Carolina School Boards Association is taking based on its membership. "

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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