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Originally published: 2013-09-09 10:47:00
Last modified: 2013-09-09 10:47:47

Governor gets report on safer schools

Gov. Pat McCrory accepted Friday a report from the Center for Safer Schools offering nearly 80 recommendations for improving the safety and security of the state's schools.

The report includes proposals for the governor, lawmakers, state departments and school districts centered on four topics: prevention, intervention, crisis response and crisis recovery.


The ideas were compiled based on feedback received at nine public forums across the state, including one April 17 in Boone.


"School safety is a top priority of my administration," McCrory said. "We have already begun to implement some of the recommendations outlined in this report, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly, school districts and schools to continue applying best practices for school safety on our campuses."


The timing of the report's release was opportune, as Watauga County Schools continues to review its own response measures following an Aug. 27 bomb threat. Interim Superintendent David Fonseca plans to address the Watauga County Board of Education on Monday with some of his findings about the response.


The report indicated that schools must respond more assertively to bullying and cyberbulling before it escalates to violence. It also encouraged schools to use alternatives to out-of-school suspension when disciplinary problems do occur.


The establishment of mental and behavioral health services on or near campuses also is an area for focus, the report said. Some counties have found ways to leverage nonschool resources to provide such services.


At Watauga High School, a collaboration with Appalachian State University in 2006 started the Assessment, Support and Counseling Center to respond to students' behavioral health issues.


"Too often there is attention to the law enforcement, emergency management and/or physical structure components while the student supports languish," the report said.


The report also emphasized the importance of school resource officers and stated that most believe well-trained SROs should be the only professionals required or permitted to carry guns on campus.


The report noted that General Assembly appropriations do not fully cover the cost of an SRO, and funds are insufficient to provide one in every elementary or middle school. Many SRO positions funded through federal sources are grant funded, leaving counties to cover sustainability costs.


While the need for additional funding was voiced in all forums, the report stressed the value of costless supports, such as engaged parents, volunteers and peer and adult mentors.


"School safety is everyone's responsibility," the report said. "Schools are microcosms of their communities and reflect the characteristics of neighborhoods in which they operate. Thus, they are prone to similar conditions and dynamics of the populations that they serve."


Fonseca, a panelist during the Boone forum, said Friday he had not yet reviewed the Center for Safer Schools report. But locally, introspective efforts about responses to threats are ongoing even this week.


Fonseca said he has asked local law enforcement agencies to join him for a debriefing session to evaluate how things went the morning of Aug. 27, when a bomb threat prompted the evacuation of all school buildings. The Boone Police Department is still investigating the incident and has not yet made an arrest.


"It went well, but we also learned a couple of things that we need to do better the next time," Fonseca said.


He shared some of those notes in a letter to superintendents statewide Aug. 29.


Among the discoveries was that the telephone messaging system was not connected to PowerSchool, a new technology platform being used by North Carolina schools. As a result, the system did not contact any families or staff who had recently joined the district, Fonseca said in his letter.


The PowerSchool system also did not allow the printing of emergency contact rosters during the evacuation, he said, although teachers were able to use traditional paper lists.


The unusual districtwide threat required that principals, assistant principals and other school staff assist in the school sweeps, Fonseca wrote. He said school staff is typically more familiar with the building layouts than officers, and that small counties such as Watauga often don't have enough officers to expeditiously search every school simultaneously.


If only one school had been affected, the schools might have relied solely on police officers for the sweeps, he said.


Fonseca said the use of school administrators in such sweeps is not a new practice,  but one he's observed throughout his 20-plus years in education.


"It's not only perceived as dangerous, it is dangerous," Fonseca said.


Administrators also learned that some of the designated evacuation sites did not open until 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m., which could have complicated evacuations on a day with poorer weather. The need to preposition certain supplies at those sites and to grab student medications from the schools during evacuations also was noted, he said.


Despite those few observations, the response overall was solid, Fonseca said.


"I think teachers did a great job, principals did a great job in making sure that the students went to the safe locations," he said. "I think that the police responded quickly in the best way they could. Again, this is one of those cases that is almost unheard of, to have this much disturbance in one day."


Visit bit.ly/SaferSchoolsreport to read the full report.