Politics & Government

Every NC school should have a police officer, group recommends in report to governor

A school safety committee formed by Gov. Roy Cooper after the Parkland school massacre says North Carolina needs to be proactive and provide money to have an armed police officer at every school in the state.

Questions about how to make schools safer have intensified since 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last February. The report presented Thursday by the Governor’s Crime Commission Special Committee on School Shootings says it’s time to discuss providing permanent funding for school resource officer positions in every school.

The report says the recommendation to have an officer at every school “reflects a desire to be proactive and preventive rather than reactionary.”

“All the schools should have a police officer in them to protect the kids from harm,” Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger, co-chairman of the committee, said in an interview Thursday.

The report says that if permanent funding for an SRO at every school isn’t deemed viable then the state should “push the issue of SROs in elementary schools.” Even if an SRO can’t be placed at every elementary school, the report said it would help to have an officer for every three or four elementary schools.

“This would improve security and allow for the elementary schools to have a resource to call on instead of always relying on middle and high school SROs and taking them away from their respective schools,” according to the report.

There are more than 2,400 public schools in North Carolina and more than 1,200 school resource officers. Most school resource officers are assigned to work in high schools and middle schools.

School resource officers are armed officers assigned by law enforcement agencies to work in schools. They provide security, speak in classes and mentor students.

The report contains more than 30 recommendations to improve school safety, including increasing funding for school-based mental health personnel and increasing training for school resource officers.

The group also supports legislation allowing gun violence protection orders, which open a way for people to ask courts to take guns temporarily from people who present a danger to themselves or others.

Cloninger said all the recommendations are important and, if implemented, will help prevent school shootings. He said it’s up to the governor, legislators and counties to decide what to implement.

“When parents send their kids to school they expect them to be out of harm’s way, and we owe it to these kids and their families to make sure our schools are safe environments for learning,” Gov. Cooper said in a statement Thursday. “I appreciate the work of this committee and I look forward to continuing to work with them as well as other parents, law enforcement officers and educators to push for safer schools.”

The committee included sheriffs, juvenile justice experts, court officials, educators and other experts. It was chaired by Cloninger and former Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.

The recommendation to increase the number of school resource officers could draw questions from groups who argue that there should be less police and not more in schools.

A study of North Carolina middle schools published last fall found no relationship between increased funding for school resource officers and reduction in cases of reported school crimes.

“Research has not shown that having a school resource officer in every school prevents shootings or makes schools safer,” said Peggy Nicholson, director of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “But research does show it sends more kids into the court system, especially black and brown children.”

Nicholson said that it’s not a good use of resources to provide every school an officer when they don’t yet have their own nurse, social worker and counselor.

Staff at the state Department of Public Instruction say it would require around $688 million more in state funding to hire enough additional nurses, social workers, counselors, psychologists and school resource officers to reach nationally recommended ratios for North Carolina’s public schools.

National school shootings over the past two decades, such as at Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, have led to an increase in the number of officers assigned to schools.

A High Point University/Greensboro News & Record poll released in October found that 84 percent of North Carolinians believe hiring more school resource officers will be very effective or somewhat effective in stopping school shootings.

“It’s critical that all children feel safe at school, but if you talk with parents and students there are some who don’t feel safe if there’s an officer in school every day,” Nicholson said. “I realize there are parents who feel the other way.”

Nicholson said there were other recommendations that she supports, such as increased training for officers and increased funding for mental health services. She also pointed to the recommendation that police and the community partner to discuss the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

After the Parkland shooting, committees were formed around the country to discuss ways to improve school safety.

The state House School Safety Committee unanimously adopted a report in December that included recommendations such as more money for school safety grants and expanded civic education and first aid training for students.

Unlike the governor’s committee, the House committee avoided discussing the controversial topic of access to guns.

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

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.