GARNER, N.C. (WTVD) -- Education leaders are in the midst of making plans to improve school safety measures moving forward.
"I think everybody is concerned about the state of safety when it comes to our youth. No matter what part of the state you reside in," said Delon B. Fletcher, a parent of two Garner High students who serves on the State Superintendent's Parent Advisory Committee.
This summer, Governor Cooper signed HB 605 into law, a measure which received overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers. The legislation requires the creation of threat assessment teams in all public schools, and peer-to-peer support programs in public schools with grades six and above.
"When we think about school climate and school safety, we must think not just about physical safety, but also about mental health of our students. And we know coming out of the pandemic that the isolation that students experienced during pandemic school closures has certainly had consequences. We're seeing more instances of behavior that is problematic in schools for both teachers and for the students themselves and their peers," said State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.
Durham Public Schools already has threat assessment teams in place.
"What we're trying to do is build out a full support mechanism so that we have reciprocal accountability and responsibility for assisting our students. It doesn't just fall on one teacher or the favorite teacher, but there is a team of experts who can assist in taking care of our children," said Dr. LaVerne Mattocks-Perry, the Senior Executive Director of Student Support Services at Durham Public Schools.
Mattocks-Perry said most team members at schools in Durham have a background in counseling or mental health.
"The number one cause of death in North Carolina for 10 to 14 year old's is suicide," said Truitt.
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 2019 about 19% of high school students reported they had seriously considered attempting suicide within the past year.
"There are so many children who are experiencing different things emotionally, some that their parents are aware of and some that their parents are not aware of. Unfortunately, we don't learn about certain things until it's too late. If we could foster an environment where we're able to communicate about those feelings and not just talk about it, but actually get the resources to help get through it, actually learn how to cope, how do I process what I'm feeling? Because we know in the school system there's an array of feelings that kids go through, depending on which grade level that they're in, and it doesn't stop. I think having support, professional support is amazing," said Fletcher.
The goal of the legislation is to protect vulnerable students from harming themselves or others.
"The peer-to-peer piece can be really effective with the bullying. Kids who are experiencing bullying can reach out to peers for support. But the threat assessment teams are really more about preventing acts of violence and acts of suicide," said Truitt.
"We know that peer influences often outweigh the influence and the opinions or advice of adults. So we rely heavily on making sure there's peer connection. There are many students who are going to their peers naturally to get counsel or advice. And what better way to assist than to formalize it and ensure those peers who are naturally seen as leaders or advisers have just a little bit of training that will help them be able to assist their peers," noted Mattocks-Perry.
The Center for Safer Schools, which operates within the Department of Public Instruction, is working on guidance for threat assessment teams and peer-to-peer support programs.
Threat assessment and peer-to-peer support programs will be in place for the 2024-2025 school year; while not mandated, it is encouraged that elementary schools also create peer-to-peer support programs.
Truitt further supports efforts to increase the number of mental health clinicians in public schools to provide further support.
"What I would like to see is that we, first of all, are able to get at least one school nurse in every school. Second of all, we need to make sure that we have adequate numbers of social workers serving our schools because they are part of this puzzle as well. And then the other piece of this is, we might not be able to put a mental health clinician in every school, but we certainly could provide telehealth for instances where a mental health clinician is called for. I think that the pandemic has shown us that we cannot ignore the role that mental health in our students plays in the wellbeing, both academically and physically," said Truitt.