Politics & Government

Improve mental health services to make schools safer, speakers tell NC lawmakers

Rep. Tim Moore, speaker of the N.C. House, is seen here on March 30, 2017.
Rep. Tim Moore, speaker of the N.C. House, is seen here on March 30, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

State lawmakers heard impassioned pleas Wednesday to improve mental health services to help make North Carolina schools safer following the mass school shooting in Florida.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead has sparked nationwide protests from students calling on lawmakers to end school gun violence. Multiple speakers on Wednesday told a newly formed committee on improving school safety that additional resources are needed to identify and treat students with mental health issues, some of whom are at risk of acting out violently.

"We have, I don’t think anybody would disagree, significant mental health issues in schools," said Jim Deni, immediate past president of the N.C. School Psychology Association.

Deni said 20 percent of students have mental health or substance use issues, and most of them never get treated. In a high school of 750 students, he said it's likely that more than 100 students have mental health needs.

National ratios recommend a school psychologist for every 700 students. Deni said the North Carolina ratio of one psychologist for every 2,100 students makes it impossible to meet psychological needs, which include doing threat assessments.

The issue of mental health treatment has gotten more attention since the Feb. 14 Florida school shooting. House Speaker Tim Moore said he expects members of the new House Select Committee on School Safety to learn about mental health issues as well as school building security.

"Threats to our schools are an appalling reality that we have to confront," Moore said at the start of the meeting. "The deal is there’s no single solution to the situation.

"We have to confront the psychology of the person who would commit these unspeakable atrocities."

Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, announced the creation of the 41- member committee the week after the Florida shooting.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and several Democratic lawmakers have called for the Republican-controlled legislature to take steps such as passing age restrictions for the purchase of assault weapons and banning "bump stocks," devices that make semi-automatic weapons fire faster. They've also proposed addressing mental health issues.

Republican co-chairmen of the school safety committee have promised to hear all ideas, but early on Moore dismissed "the gun debate" as "a discussion for another time."

Some of those concerns came out Wednesday when Rep. Allen McNeill, an Asheboro Republican, questioned the State Bureau of Investigation citing data on school shootings from an "anti-gun group." SBI Special Agent Elliott Smith said his staff had vetted the data from Everytown Research that says there have been 15 shooting incidents in North Carolina K-12 schools and universities since 2013.

On Wednesday, the committee heard from several other speakers.

Kym Martin, executive director for the N.C. Center for Safer Schools, said the best way to deal with school safety is through a three-pronged approach that focuses on prevention. One of those prongs is mental health services and others include steps such as school resource officers learning how to de-escalate situations and creating a positive school climate by reducing bullying.

“Keeping schools safe is not a one-size-fits-all proposition," Martin said. "There’s not one single measure that you can put into place that will magically transform a school into the sanctuary of learning that our students deserve."

Amid the talk about improving mental health, Rep. MaryAnn Black, a Durham Democrat, said most people with mental illnesses will never be violent.

“As we move forward, I hope we’re also going to have a discussion about what needs to be done to protect the schools from guns being brought," she added.

Legislators heard from students such as Riley Barnes, Clayton High School's junior class president, who asked for more support for the SPK UP NC app that allows students to anonymously report school safety concerns. She told lawmakers "to take the necessary measures to ensure the safety that my peers and I are entitled to."

"It is an undeniable fundamental right that precautions are taken to ensure that I do not go through my school days in fear," Barnes said. "My high school career should be spent worrying about the SAT, college applications and what prom dress color I want and juggling my AP classes."

The committee ended the meeting by compiling a list of ideas it should study further, including allowing armed security guards who aren't police officers at schools, reviewing the mental health system and banning bump stocks.

When no legislators brought up the idea of arming teachers, several Democrats said they wanted to make it known that they're against the concept.

"I could very easily see a situation where a teacher is intimidated by a student and something goes wrong and somebody ends up dead or severely injured," said Rep. Rodney Moore, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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