Ned Barnett

Here's our best defense against school gun violence in NC

Santa Fe High School student: First we heard 'run,' then 'all we heard was 'boom''

Santa Fe High School student Dakota Shrader details the panic and pandemonium during a school shooting that killed at least eight students Friday morning.
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Santa Fe High School student Dakota Shrader details the panic and pandemonium during a school shooting that killed at least eight students Friday morning.

The state Legislative Building’s new metal detectors got a workout Wednesday as a long line of teachers emptied their pockets and stepped through the devices as they went in to demand more funding for public schools.

That scene captures the contradiction of gun laws and school safety in North Carolina. Some lawmakers think the threat of school gun violence is now so great that teachers should be armed in their classrooms. But those same lawmakers don’t want teachers armed in the Legislative Building where they’ve voted to ease gun laws.

There’s no fixing that twisted thinking given the pro-gun stance of the current legislature. The majority will accept that a society in which teachers need to bear arms is necessary to protect the right of virtually all American adults to bear arms. For them, the best way to stop mentally disturbed students from shooting up their schools isn’t to restrict access to guns; the best way is to have armed teachers and more armed officers on campus.

The deadly futility of the “more guns, more safety” approach was refuted for the umpteenth time Friday in gun-loving Texas. A 17-year-old student walked into Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles southeast of Houston, armed with a shotgun and a .38 revolver, two guns owned by his father. He killed 10 people and wounded as many others, including the police officer protecting the school.

The United States has so many school shootings because it has so many guns and so many shootings in all places. As the news site Vox put it: “Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet own roughly 42 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.” Various estimates put the number of guns in the U.S. at 270 million to 310 million.

The best way to reduce gun violence in schools and elsewhere is to reduce the number of guns through gun buybacks and tighter gun controls, including greater penalties for gun owners who do not secure their weapons from being taken by children. But that is not going to happen at a time when both the president and the vice president show up at a NRA convention just months after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in which 17 were killed.

We need to improve the awareness of and response to students who may be prone to striking out against their teachers and other students. The teachers who rallied last week asked for more money for school counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists. The ranks of those workers have been reduced by cuts in state funding.

Mark Jewel, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the legislature can help teachers “not by arming us with guns but by arming us with the support personnel who can help us with the emotional needs of our children.”

In terms of school nurses, there is one for every 1,086 students in North Carolina. The state’s recommended level is one for every 750 students. State legislative staff estimates it would cost an additional $45 million to attain that ratio. Fifty eight percent of schools do not have a full-time health professional on campus. It would cost an additional $79 million to ensure every school has a nurse.

The recommended ratio of school psychologists to students is 1 to 700. In North Carolina, the ratio is 1 to 2,100. Some rural counties do not have a single school psychologist.

School counselors, previously called guidance counselors, are also in short supply: 1 to 386 students when the recommended ratio is 1 to 250.

Gov. Roy Cooper has proposed spending for school safety that includes $40 million to go toward hiring more counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses, and $15 million for new programs to address students’ mental health challenges. In April, a state legislative subcommittee adopted a report recommendingthat the state increase the number of school support personnel but did not include funding levels.

Schools need more people attuned to the physical, emotional and mental health of students. They can rescue a child from distress and perhaps spare a school from heartbreak. If state legislators are worried enough about gun violence that they need metal detectors at the Legislative Building, they ought to also provide schools with more mental stress detectors.