New office will evaluate school safety measures
APEX — Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday unveiled a new school safety office within his administration that he says will evaluate the best ways to protect North Carolina students and teachers and help school districts respond effectively to real and potential dangers on campus.
The Republican governor envisions the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools as a clearinghouse for safety methods being used across the state and nation and as a body that would make possible recommendations to the General Assembly to consider. Referring to the December school massacre in Newtown, Conn., McCrory said the center also would create a "comprehensive strategy not based upon just emotion or on the politics of the day."
"We have a lot of parents who are dependent upon us to have peace in their hearts and their souls when they drop their kids off at schools," McCrory said as students participated in his news conference in the library of Apex Middle School, outside Raleigh. "We have a role in government to ensure that the parents know that we feel responsible ... to take every action necessary to protect our schools."
The center will hold eight forums across the state in April to receive input before making recommendations or taking the next step, said Kieran Shanahan, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, where the center will be housed.
Schools are supposed to have emergency response plans, but it's unclear if those plans have been vetted, he said. The center will help do that, according to Shanahan.
"The No. 1 objective is to be authentic and real in what we do so that we can make a meaningful difference in the schools," Shanahan told reporters.
Any strategy, Shanahan said, will include mental health recommendations. Investigations into recently mass killings have often involved mistakes or omissions in providing behavioral care to the alleged gunmen.
Center officials also will evaluate the role of police officers serving in the schools and whether they should be armed. A recent survey found about 55 percent of the state's high schools had such student resource officers, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson.
"I have not given them any restrictions on what they'll recommend to make the schools safe," McCrory said, except that center leaders need to "make sure there are facts backing it up, and data backing it up and success stories backing it up."
Several legislators have filed bills this year that would allow public and private schools to designate staff or volunteers who could carry weapons or use them in an emergency or serve as a deterrent.
McCrory has said he doesn't believe new federal or state gun restrictions are needed to address recent mass killings, arguing current firearm laws should be enforced and improving mental health treatment also should be a focus.
The center's executive director will be Wake County special education teacher Kym Martin of Apex, who is also the wife of Associate Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin. She will make $72,000 annually, Shanahan's department said.
Shanahan said he found money from unused department salaries to fund the center. McCrory's budget proposal Wednesday will include money to expand its work.
Tuesday's announcement revives and retools the previous North Carolina Center for the Prevention of School Violence. The center saw its $481,000 state funding eliminated in the 2009-10 state budget because it wasn't a core component of what was then the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, according to budget documents.
Atkinson said school districts can tap into two funding streams to hire school psychologists or counselors, but they aren't required to spend the money in that way.
Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos said her agency will work with center officials to provide expertise on identifying early warning signals for potentially violent behavior. Speaking directly to Apex Middle School students standing behind her, Wos said just saying hello to classmates and showing compassion to others goes a long way toward keeping the peace.
"Sometimes that doesn't require money, it doesn't require rules and regulations and laws," Wos said. "What does it require? It requires doing the right thing."