The General Assembly remains adjourned and is not expected to back in session until May 16, when both the House and Senate return to Raleigh for the legislative short session. The short session is expected to last until late June or early July with the main task of the General Assembly to rewrite the budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year which begins on July 1, 2018.
However, this past Wednesday, March 21st, the House Select Committee on School Safety met at the General Assembly Legislative Office Building in the room 643. The meeting began at 9AM and adjourned at 5PM with a 90 minute lunch break. I was at the meeting and am providing an update here because many of our students may have concerns with some of the debate around guns on school campuses. There was also a lot of discussion around enhancing mental health services to schools and putting more SROs, including retired police and military personnel on campuses.
The meeting was basically, and intentionally, a hearing of school safety experts, mental health officials, a teacher and two students with a free-flow brainstorming session for members of the committee.
I was told in private conversations with key Republican legislators and staff that the committee chairs wanted to do more listening at this meeting than talking. And while there was much anticipation that the debate around arming teachers would be the center of the committee hearing, only one legislator — Rep. Elmer Floyd (D-Cumberland) — brought the issue up and it was within the last 30 minutes of the meeting.
Rep. Floyd said he wanted to have a discussion around how teachers would get compensated if they were allowed to carry guns at schools. Two Democrats — Representatives Becky Carney (Mecklenburg) and Pricey Harrison (Guilford) immediately spoke against arming teachers. Noticeably, no Republican engaged in the debate and the issue dissipated. I was also told by a Republican committee staff person that Republican silence on the issue was purposeful. This seems to support conversations I had with suburban House members, who said they and other suburban Republicans are not supportive of arming teachers and have informed the House leadership of this.
There was a general bipartisan support in the room for reaching out to retired law enforcement and military personnel to patrol schools while recognizing that a screening and training system would need to be created for safety reasons. The committee also seemed to support providing more School Resource Officers (SROs), which are sworn law enforcement officers on school campuses. While some campuses have an SRO, other campuses share SROs. The 2 students speaking to the committee were concerned that their Johnston County high school shares an SRO with 4 other schools in the county.
There is also general bipartisan support for providing more mental health services to students in school. Many questions were directed at DPI around de-escalation trainings for educators and the current staffing of school nurses/counselors/psychologists. It was explained to legislators that the General Assembly provides funding for these positions at a base level but school systems are given latitude to convert those dollars to other categories of spending (presumably classroom teachers).
While there seemed to be support for providing more funds to mental health staffing in schools, the conversation also included bipartisan concerns about the incredible costs in implementing such an expansion statewide. This was underscored in the conversation about school psychologists and school counselors, and the varying funding required for these two categories.
It is important to note that polling shared with the committee indicates 81% of parents of students in North Carolina schools feel mental health support in the schools is inadequate.
The next committee meeting will likely be in early/mid-April, with some subcommittee work done in the next couple weeks. The chairs also announced that there will be a public input hearing at a later date. The committee is expected to complete its interim work by May 16 (the day the short session begins) and is expected to have a list of recommendations to the House for its short legislative session.