Opinion

After the #March4OurLives: The policies that are most likely to make our schools and students safer

“In order to prevent violence in schools, we must address the challenges children bring with them,” says the NC Justice Center’s Sarah Montgomery.
“In order to prevent violence in schools, we must address the challenges children bring with them,” says the NC Justice Center’s Sarah Montgomery. NC Justice Center

Hundreds of thousands of people have participated in March for Our Lives demonstrations to demand common-sense gun reform, advocate for full funding for the student support services desperately needed in our schools and, notably, to register voters.

As our state begins to look closely at school safety, lawmakers would do well to inform their decisions with the experiences and needs of those inside the school building every day. We may find that the solution lies within the problem itself.

Many of the “solutions” proposed in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida have centered on “hardening” schools by expanding the number of armed school resource officers, installing metal detectors, practicing regular lock-down drills and, even arming educators (a proposal that almost 80 percent of teachers in NC oppose).

This would be a misguided and inadequate approach.

For as unspeakably horrific as mass school shootings are, they remain only a small part of the national gun violence epidemic that kills almost 100 Americans every dayseven of whom are children and teens (age 19 or under).

As members of the N.C. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on School Safety prepare for the May legislative session, it is imperative that they avoid this shortsighted mistake and acknowledge the need for investments and interventions that address existing cycles of violence, diverse student needs and prioritize the creation of inclusive school environments that are safe for every child. To this end, a handful of obvious strategies stand out:

Promote “trauma-informed” schools

In order to prevent violence in schools, we must address the challenges children bring with them. Research points to the need to understand how childhood trauma impact a student’s academic outcomes, social-emotional well-being and predict their likelihood of developing future chronic diseases. School-based strategies and professional development training can create a culture that helps students creduce toxic stress, build resiliency and develop the coping skills. Particular focus is also needed to address the trauma immigrant students, their families and the school staff that serve them are experiencing during the constant threat of deportation.

Increase funding for school psychologists, counselors and social workers

North Carolina’s shortage of school psychologists, counselors and social workers has become both extreme and chronic. In many parts of the state, schools go days without a visit from any such professionals. This hard reality limits our ability to effectively address student trauma and meet the ongoing needs of our children. In order to retain current practitioners and attract new school support staff to our state, we must allocate additional funding for their positions and make their salaries more competitive.

Commit to funding school nurses

School nurses are fundamental in addressing a child’s health needs and to promoting a healthy school environment. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s current student to nurse ratio is 1: 1,086 with some districts far surpassing that number. Only five out of 115 districts report a nurse in every school.

Invest in school-based strategies that deescalate violence

“Restorative justice” practices focus on conflict resolution rather than relying solely on punitive measures that serve to worsen North Carolina’s existing school-to-prison pipeline crisis. Any effort to increase the presence of law enforcement and SROs on school campuses must also consider the need for appropriate training and oversight so that disciplinary measures do not continue to disproportionately affect students of color.

Shift from preparation to prevention

One point of which law and policy makers must be constantly reminded is the fact that resource-starved schools are made more vulnerable to the cycle of violence and are in a compromised position to effectively respond to students’ needs. One of the lead organizers from Parkland, Ryan Deitsch, underscored this point during his speech at March for Our Lives in Washington. “We need to arm our teachers, with pencils, pens, paper and the money they need,” he rightfully observed.

In this vein, North Carolina lawmakers would be wise to heed the call of those most impacted by our state’s education budget priorities (our students) by reversing the decade-long trend that has resulted in our state’s public school, per pupil funding plummeting from its previous, top 20 ranking to 43rd in the nation.

Next steps

No one has any illusion that the solutions will be easy. The state House’s new school safety committee is just the latest version of an effort first initiated more than two decades ago – one that, unfortunately, ran out of funding. If, however, North Carolina chooses to prioritize investments in supporting and expanding student supports, school staff and initiatives that repair harm and address trauma, we will be closer to ensuring safe school environments for every student.

Sarah Montgomery is a policy advocate with the NC Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

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