Parents, activists split on how to best spend funds aimed at improving school safety

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Friday, May 19, 2023
Parents, activists split on how to spend funds to improve safety
Millions of dollars have been funneled to schools across the state to improve school safety, but nobody is quite sure the best way to spend the money.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- More than $74 million was awarded to around 200 schools across North Carolina this past school year. The money is part of the state's Center for Safer Schools grant program that is funded through the General Assembly.

Funding school safety is a top priority for almost everyone as threats to schools and weapons on campus increase across the country.

Eighty-one percent of people who responded to an ABC11 I-Team survey said they were concerned about safety within their local school and/or district. Three out of four respondents rated their concern "high" or "somewhat high."

While a majority expressed concern, parents, educators and community members were split on how best to address safety.

This year the state's grant money was mostly divided between assisting districts with funding school resource officers ($32.9 million) and purchasing equipment ($36.5 million). Another 6% of the money was allocated for services and training.

"So, some of the training could be things as it relates to school climate. It can be training as it relates to human trafficking, bullying and substance abuse; any of the things that impact school climate," explained Karen Fairley, the executive director of the NC Center for Safer Schools. "It also can be training as it relates to active shooter drills. It just depends on the needs of the school."

Maria Mills' school, Carolina Charter Academy, is one of the schools using the funds to hire a school resource officer; a position she said they may have had to delay hiring without the funds.

SEE ALSO | 'Stay vigilant': Keeping schools safe with School Resource Officers

Officers said despite the vast number of threats this semester at Wake County schools, they take each and every one of them seriously.

"We're as prepared as we can be and we're constantly seeking to be more prepared. I do think the implementation of the SRO will provide a nice community environment with another social servant," Mills said.

She explained her school of around 600 students is often competing for resources against massive public school districts. She also said funding limitations constantly mean having to prioritize which safety measures to implement. Fairley explained that's where the School Safety Grants come into play.

"The purpose of the funding is to support the districts who otherwise couldn't afford to put these safety measures in place," Fairley said. "It's crucial that this funding is given to the center to allocate out to the districts because school safety is going to continuously change. Technology changes. And what we're purchasing in the year 2023 and 2026 or 2027, there may be upgrades to the technology, there may be new things that we haven't thought about as it relates to school safety."

Wake County Public Schools received $659,000 to create a visitor management system. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools is spending its $283,000 on upgrades to the camera, access control and door hardware. Meanwhile, Nash County Public Schools said it used funds to hire SROs for all middle and elementary schools, along with purchasing walkie-talkies. Other districts did not return ABC11's questions about how they spent their grants.

As weapons appear on North Carolina school campuses weekly, the increase of SROs and metal detectors have been popular options considered by districts.

The ABC11 I-Team found 60% of survey respondents were in favor of SROs, but only around half said that they believed metal detectors would improve safety. Security cameras (65%) and visitor management systems (75%) were safety options that scored the highest approval from respondents.

SEE ALSO | Not all North Carolina schools have submitted required safety plans

With more weapons being found on schools campuses, it's more important than ever for school officials to plan for the worst.

The ABC11 survey found 71% of people said they do not believe their district is doing enough to protect students' safety.

Some respondents blamed this on broader gun access, others pointed to "reactive policies," open doors, lack of student discipline and even "lack of coordination with first responders."

Wake County mother and public educator advocate Rev. Suzanne Parker Miller said she feels safe with her students in Wake County Public Schools and described her kids' schools as "fortresses."

"I feel like the leadership of our Wake County system is really doing all that they can. They need help from the community to continue to keep school safe. And I'm not sure that they're getting the support that they need outside of this system," Parker Miller said.

She said she would like to see more investment from the state level on teachers and other staff positions.

"The state is not putting in the money that they need for Public Ed to be able to keep our children safe," she said. "They're not funding counselors. They're not funding enough nurses, enough psychologists, all of those supporting professionals, the extra adults in the building who are so important to being sure that we can keep our schools safe."

Ninety percent of people who responded to the survey said they don't think their district has enough mental health resources.

SEE ALSO | New technology promises to make Wake County schools safer by efficiently tracking school guests

A new visitor management system is helping schools track visitors that come and go throughout the day.

"If we value literally human life, young people and the people who care for them, then we got to put our money there," said Wake NCAE President Christina Spears, who represents educators in Wake County.

For many, mental health resources go hand-in-hand with decreasing overall security threats.

"It's not spending money. It's investing in our schools and our children and that's where I really want to see a big difference, a big change happen," Parker Miller said. "I would much rather see money put toward the counselors and the nurses and psychologists and social workers, people who can help in those ways to help our school communities. I don't feel that school resource officers make our schools safer."

While many agree mental health resources are needed, not all said it should come before other security measures. When asked about how schools should prioritize safety investments, only a quarter chose mental health resources. Instead, nearly half opted for physical security enhancements.

SEE ALSO | Decoding the difference between mental health and mental illness

ABC 11 is helping to decode the difference between mental health and mental illness.

Some suggestions ranged from creating stricter gun laws, to better funding staff, to requiring clear backpacks.

Spears said she knows many teachers in Wake County who disagree with random searches, metal detectors and more security presence.

"We do not want our kids searched. I'm trying to teach. They're already come in late because of the buses. I don't need them being searched on their way. I need them to get into their seats so we can do math," Spears said. "I think those are not things educators are saying. I think those are things parents and community members go to."

Spears said while metal detectors and SROs have increased in schools across the nation over the last decade so has gun violence and weapons on campus, so she thinks that is a sign that those measures aren't working.

As safety remains top of mind for schools, educators and the community, Spears believes it will take continual funding and collaboration to determine the most impactful solutions.

"I believe in conversations and having students, staff and parents say, 'This is what I need.' And the district doing that is a way to bridge that gap," Spears said.

Everybody safe, no threat found during Durham charter school lockdown

All week ABC11 has been reporting on how schools across the Triangle are doing everything they can to have safer schools for students and staff.

Here's a look at some of the stories you may have missed.

Durham students band together to get more mental health resources in school

A group of Durham students and teachers are stepping up to protect their peers in the wake of violence and tragedy.

'Stay vigilant': Keeping schools safe with School Resource Officers

New technology promises to make Wake County schools safer by efficiently tracking school guests

New security system boosts goal to keep offenders off campuses of Cumberland Co. Schools