Would tougher gun laws make NC schools safer? Depends on who you ask.

Vigil in Raleigh honors those lost to gun violence

A coalition of local activists conduct a die-in and vigil at the State Capital to honor the victims of mass school shootings on Wednesday, May 30, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C.
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A coalition of local activists conduct a die-in and vigil at the State Capital to honor the victims of mass school shootings on Wednesday, May 30, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C.

There's no debate that North Carolina schools can be made safer, but a town hall Tuesday showed there's disagreement on whether tougher gun control laws is the right answer to the problem.

The panel of elected officials, students, law enforcement and mental-health professionals at Tuesday night's forum at Sanderson High School agreed that steps such as more mental health workers are needed in the wake of recent national mass school shootings.

But when it came to whether there should also be more laws restricting access to guns, the consensus disappeared — mirroring the national divide on the issue.

The mass shooting at a Parkland high school has reignited the debate about arming teachers at schools. Our Elon University/News & Observer/Charlotte Observer poll shows North Carolina teachers think that's a bad idea.

"For us to have a real conversation around school safety, we need to have a real conversation about access to guns," said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat.

Chaudhuri and other Democratic legislators have introduced bills that would raise the age to purchase assault-style rifles from 18 to 21 and ban "bump stocks," which allow guns to mimic fully automatic fire. They also want judges to be able to order people considered physical threats to themselves or others to surrender weapons temporarily.

But Chaudhuri complained that the legislation is being ignored by Republican lawmakers who control the legislature.

In contrast, Sen. John Alexander, a Raleigh Republican, said there's "terrific unanimity in finding solutions" to school safety.

"There might be a disagreement as to how we get there," Alexander said. "But nevertheless there's terrific unanimity in the North Carolina legislature to achieve this and make sure that our schools are as safe as they should be."

Alexander added that when it comes to taking guns away temporarily from people, it's a legal question he can't answer.

Sanderson High School in Raleigh, NC was placed on a "Code Red" lockdown Monday afternoon, May 14, 2018. Students were released later for the day.

The divisive nature of gun control laws was shown again later in the forum when an audience member shouted "well regulated meant well trained, not government oversight" after Sanderson student Lauren Santana said the Second Amendment allows for regulation of guns.

Students from high schools across Chapel Hill and Carrboro walked out of school and marched up to 4.6 miles to Franklin St.'s Peace and Justice Plaza for an anti-gun violence rally on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.

School safety and gun violence have been pushed to the forefront since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 people dead. There have been more school shootings since then, including the deaths of 10 people on May 18 at Santa Fe High School near Houston.

Students across the nation have walked out of class to demand change on multiple occasions and had after-school and weekend protests.

During a press conference, Sarah Sanders answered a question that brought her to tears. A 13-year-old boy asked about the administration's effort to prevent school shootings.

Republican lawmakers have included $35 million in the new state budget for school safety covering things such as hiring more school resource officers and school-based metal health workers and creating a statewide tip line. But Gov. Roy Cooper and Democratic lawmakers complain it's less than the $130 million they want to spend and that the GOP plan doesn't include any gun control measures.

"With these shootings that just happened, we were probably slow on the uptake to make these changes," Alexander said of adding more mental health professionals. "But we’re working toward that and we will get there.”

Alexander added that people can ask their local county commissioners to provide additional funding for mental health workers. This prompted Wake County school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler to say that county dollars can't fill the gap.

Options such as arming teachers were discussed and panned during the forum.

While both Republicans and Democratic legislators have called for more school resource officers, Johnson-Hostler said she's not personally in support since it could lead to the criminalization of minority students.

Johnston County law enforcement, emergency management and school system personnel participated in a training exercise where they responded to a simulated school shooting incident at North Johnston High School in Kenly, NC, on Wednesday, May 2, 2018.

Johnson-Hostler said that the school board has agreed that instead of more police they want to put more people in schools, such as counselors, social workers and psychologists, to support students.

The shootings have also led to calls for doing more to beef up the physical safety of school buildings. Johnson-Hostler said they need to consider how it would affect African-American male students to install things such as metal detectors and bulletproof glass.

"What message are we giving that our schools now look like prisons?" Johnson-Hostler said. "That’s a conversation we have to have.”

The forum ended with Sanderson students recalling the terror they felt earlier this month when the school was placed on lockdown for 40 minutes following reports of an intruder on campus. It turned out to be a false report, but student Maggie Duffy said it has left a lasting impact on Sanderson students who worry each day if they could be the victim of a school shooting.

"What if today is the day that Sanderson, Broughton High School, Enloe High School, Millbrook High School or Leesville (Road) High School becomes the latest American tragedy?" Duffy said.

Greear Webb, a Sanderson student and one of the forum organizers, said they'd continue the work begun Tuesday to find solutions to making schools safer. One step, he said, is for people to register to vote.

"Elect officials who truly care about keeping our children safe," Webb said. "This issue should be personal for each of us. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need to couple that with policies and action."

More than 2,000 students walked out of Green Hope High School on February 28, 2018 to demand political changes to try to end school gun violence following the recent Florida school shooting massacre. More walk outs were scheduled for March 14.

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