Why NC leaders think more nurses, counselors and social workers could make schools safer

Support is building among state leaders to try to make North Carolina schools safer by hiring more counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers to target the mental health needs of students.

On Monday, a state legislative subcommittee adopted a report recommending that the state increase the number of school support personnel to provide better care of the social and emotional needs of students. The report comes a few days after Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled a $130 million school safety proposal that includes $40 million to hire more counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses, and $15 million for additional "innovative programs" to address students' mental health challenges.

Unlike Cooper's plan, the legislative report didn't recommend any specific dollar amounts. But a different state report found that it could cost $45 million to $79 million more a year to meet different recommended staffing standards for school nurses.

"School nurses are on the very front lines of identifying and coordinating help for students with challenges, not just medical challenges but emotional challenges," said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican. "I think that recognizing that in particular and urging the General Assembly to meet the national standard on school nurses could go a long way and help us get out in front of the mental health needs of our kids"

The issue of looking at mental health needs of students has gotten more attention since the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead. Students have held multiple rallies nationally over the past two months, including several on Friday, calling for tougher gun control laws.

State leaders have responded by creating two different school committees, including one formed by Cooper that held its first meeting Monday.

A separate subcommittee of lawmakers is looking at options such as adding more school resource officers and ways to make campuses physically safer. Cooper's plan also has similar elements.

The House school safety committee's student health working group has heard from different groups about how these support personnel can help students while also identifying potential threats. Speakers said their work is complicated by not having enough people.

"Children today are increasingly victims of many social forces that negatively affect their roles as students," said Sandra Williams-McGlone, president elect of the N.C. School Social Workers Association.

"Their family is in the state of change and until it becomes stabilized, in whatever form, children's unmet physical needs and emotional needs will continue to interfere with their ability to learn and to adjust in school, so that is why we really need social workers because we deal with kids who are very unstabilized."

According to the legislative report:

There's one school nurse for every 2,315 students, compared to the nationally recommended ratio of one for every school.

There's one school psychologist for every 1,857 students, compared to the nationally recommended ratio of 1:700.

There's one school social worker for every 1,427 students, compared to the the nationally recommended ratio of 1:400.

There's one school counselor for every 350 students instead of the nationally recommended ratio of 1:250.

In addition to more support staff, the subcommittee had five other recommendations:

Change state law so that the people who are nationally certified school psychologists aren't required to meet other criteria to work in the state's schools.

Pass legislation requiring every North Carolina public school to have a threat assessment team.

Pass legislation requiring every North Carolina middle school and high school to have peer-to-peer counseling programs in which students provide mentoring, counseling and support to other students.

Pass legislation to study how to coordinate care among nurses, psychologists and social workers and to train them to identify potentially dangerous mental and behavioral health issues.

Explore statewide expansion of the Speak Up NC app, or a similar tool, that allows students to anonymously report threats, abuse or related issues.

An app is needed because students often know more than adults about what's going on in school, according to Rep. Donna White, a Johnston County Republican. She also said that an app like Speak Up could have saved lives at Parkland.

"I'm just going on record and saying Parkland would have happened whether the Speak Up app existed or not," White said. "But I would dare say that maybe only one student would have been killed if we had had an app at that school."

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