‘We cannot be afraid to change’: Students, officials share school safety needs

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To Fike High senior Jocelyn Jones, school safety means having an overall feeling of mental and physical security.

Jones spoke Monday at a school safety forum organized by state Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson.

Farmer-Butterfield is a member of a House select committee organized in the North Carolina General Assembly to examine the issue of school safety.

About 30 people attended the event held at Forest Hills Middle School.

Jones was one of two Wilson County students to speak on school safety from the student perspective.

“One of the most pressing and controversial topics that threatens my physical safety and the safety of my peers at school is the prevalence of gun violence in the world today,” Jones said. “There have been 14 school shootings from Jan. 1 to the end of March at least.”

Jones said she defines a school shooting as any instance where a student or a staff member has been killed or injured by the use of a firearm on school grounds.

“Because so many have happened in those three months alone, it leaves other students and I wondering if we’re next,” Jones said. “Is Fike next? Is Hunt next? Is it Wells or New Hope?”

Jones said she believes that schools should increase the number of counselors, psychiatrists or psychologists and see that students’ mental health is better taken care of.

“Seeing this in public schools will increase the students’ understanding that their mental well-being is just as important as their education at school,” Jones said.“The most important takeaway from this program is that we cannot be afraid to change for the good. Young adults and adults have to be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Farmer-Butterfield said she organized the forum to hear stakeholders’ school safety concerns and take their ideas back to the House panel.

“We wanted to be as comprehensive as possible that we decided to keep that committee in place and make it an ongoing committee because we see this as something that is important, that’s not going to go away and we need to make sure that we are doing prevention and intervention at all times in North Carolina,” Farmer-Butterfield said. “We want to be proactive rather than reactive.”

“The biggest thing about school safety is what you are seeing here tonight, which is about relationships,” said Lane Mills, superintendent of Wilson County Schools. “When you have people from the legislative side of things, the school side of things, law enforcement, students, that’s really what makes the difference for safety issues in our schools.”

Mills said students, teachers and administrators get a lot of practice with lockdown drills, shelter-in-place drills and evacuation drills.

Administrators do tabletop simulations of various scenarios. Improvements in lighting, having clear lines of sight, safety protocols and cameras on buses are helping make Wilson schools safer, Mills said.

“Our teachers and our staff take these very seriously,” Mills said. “Our job is to get our students here, get them educated and get them home safe.”

“We are always doing things that are trying to keep our students, our parents, and you the public, as you come into our schools, safe and to keep our schools safe and orderly,” said Christine Fitch, chairwoman of the Wilson County Board of Education.

Xavier Farmer, a student at Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education, said students should be comfortable but prepared to respond to crisis.

“You should always have a safety mindset no matter what’s going on,” Farmer said. “Safety procedures should always be followed by students. People should think of safety no mater where they are.”

Farmer said teachers should know CPR.

Farmer was against the idea of teachers carrying weapons in school.

“I feel that weapons shouldn’t be allowed by the staff or anyone in the building except the sheriff,” Farmer said.

Maj. Craig C. Smith, a 29-year-veteran of the Wilson Police Department, said the department has 38 programs each year that target children.

“We’ve got to get them at this age here,” Smith said, extending his hand down to about three feet off of the stage. “Every time we can reach out to that child that age and they get to see us in a good light, we can actually build bridges.”

William Lassiter, deputy secretary for juvenile justice, said Gov. Roy Cooper wants to put an additional $130 million in the state budget this year specifically for safer school proposals.

“The first one is to invest in public safety enhancements including physical enhancements to schools,” Lassiter said. “We are going to ask school districts to go out and do physical needs assessments for each of the schools across the state and then prioritize those physical needs assessments.”

Lassiter said physical improvements for school safety will be funded through the Governor’s Crime Commission.

Lassiter said improving student support services is vital.

“He (Cooper) wants to improve the number of student support services by 500 additional positions across the state. Those categories would include the nurses, the school psychologists, the school counselors and the school social workers,” Lassiter said. “We are far behind in nurses especially. Right now, in the state of North Carolina we only have one for every 2,400 students across the state. That is well short of the national requirement of one (nurse) to 750 students. There is a lot of work to be done in that area. With our social workers, we are also way behind.”

Lassiter said that the governor’s budget has an additional $7 million for school resource officers.

“We have heard about the need for additional police officers in our schools,” Lassiter said. “There is funding to do that in the governor’s budget. He has asked for an additional $7 million for two different purposes right now. Each school district in the state of North Carolina gets $38,000 per high school to fund a school resource officer. That’s not enough to fund the position. We know what we have to do is expand that funding per high school in this state to $50,000. That would help pay for the salary and also some of the equipment for those positions across the state.”

Lassiter said the state is looking at a putting a risk and response tool in place for officers responding to schools.

“All of the floor plans for all of the schools in the state of North Carolina will be in this program, so when a law enforcement officer is arriving at a school or responding to an active shooter incident or any type of serious incident on the school campus, they would be able to pull up a floor plan of the school that show them where the entrances and exits are, where the fire alarm is shut off and turned on, where the water is turned on and shut off in the school,” Lassiter said. “It will all be in a web-based format that they will all be able to pull up on their laptops that are in their patrol cars, so that would be an excellent tool. We have done that already with most of the schools already across the state. We need just a little bit of additional money to fully fund that in the state of North Carolina so that we can take in all the schools across our state.”

“We want to protect our schools and make sure that every child has an opportunity to come to school and feel and be safe,” Farmer-Butterfield said.