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A sign at Butler High School in Matthews announces that it is a “safe place.” Following a shooting in October 2018, the school has added a number of security upgrades.

With school shootings on the rise for the last 20 years, gun violence is a concern for many students, parents and school districts.

A nearly $1 million federal grant to enhance aid for school security was announced this fall for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Center for Safer Schools. Officials hope to use the fund for better training, increased resources and promoting better policies at schools across the state.

The Center for Homeland Defense and Security reports 14 incidences of gun violence in North Carolina K-12 schools since 2010.

Paul Holden, director of student services for Watauga County Schools, said he finds some correlation between the rise in anxiety among students in his county and the increasing trend of gun violence across the nation.

“We’ve had a couple circumstances where something that 10 years ago would have been innocuous — an accidental fire alarm — when that happens, the kids, particularly our high school kids, you can visually see it appears to be a little more anxiety inducing,” Holden said.

“I attribute that to the school shootings.”

Many schools have responded by increasing security personnel and technology. Holden said Watauga County Schools have acquired two new nurses and one more school resource officer as well as installing safety doors in the school foyers in the past few years.

Alexander County Schools made similar improvements to school security technology and building safety, said Alisha Cloer, executive director of human resources and school safety.

“Schools across the country are more aware of the potential for violence. Incidents that have occurred cause everyone to have a heightened awareness of the surroundings and procedures within the schools,” Cloer said.

“We have plans in place for emergencies, and everyone in the district participates in drills and follow-up meetings after the drills.”

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Grant to DPI’s Center for Safer Schools

DPI also focuses on improving school safety through its Center for Safer Schools.

As part of the U.S. Justice Department’s STOP School Violence Program, the Center for Safer Schools has been awarded a three-year, nearly $1 million grant, which will focus on training, technical assistance, resources, policies and partnerships, according to a DPI statement announcing the funding.

The enter will collaborate with several data-driven, violence prevention and threat assessment organizations to help gauge how funds should be used at various schools.

One of the collaborators, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, provides survey materials to assess school climate by asking students, parents and staff about the school environment.

Some sample questions include evaluations of students’ feelings about school, their safety traveling to and from school, the clarity of emergency protocol or threat assessment and the condition of building safety technology.

Additional data comes from school district records of all reportable offenses to DPI.

Reportable offenses include nine dangerous or violent offenses: homicide, assault, assault involving use of weapon, rape, sexual offense, sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon and taking indecent liberties with a minor.

The other seven reportable acts are assault on school personnel, bomb threat, burning a school building, possession of alcohol, possession of controlled substance, possession of a firearm or explosive and possession of a weapon.

While the public’s perception may be that incidents are increasing, the data says otherwise.

According to the 2017-18 consolidated data report, the number of reportable crimes by high school students decreased by 87, or 1.6%, from the 2016-17 school year to the 2017-18 school year. The total reportable crime rate decreased by 2% during that period.

Communication the key to security

Holden said offense data, as well as communicating with students, staff and the community, can help determine where resources are lacking and how to better prevent violent acts.

“We are paying attention to our kids who might have some interest in harming themselves and going from self-harm to other harm,” Holden said.

“There are so many ways to keep track of these things now (such as through) social media. In a smaller community we have community people like parents who will bring things to light, which really helps with communication.”

Holden said he feels the grant should focus on mental health support for students, including helping counselors, nurses and social workers to provide trauma-informed care, resiliency training and create a culture of compassion within the schools. These concerns increased recently.

“I would say in the last few years it seems that there is a little more anxiety in kids that leads to behaviors that kids are disciplined for,” Holden said.

“I kind of attribute it to the national climate filtering back to the local climate, people being on edge about the partisan world they perceive they live in. It breeds anxiety for parents and then subsequently for their kids.”

Holden said Watauga being a rural community can contribute to feelings of isolation or depression in students, as well as seasonal affective disorder in the colder months.

Robyn Helton, executive director of exceptional children and federal programs for Alexander County Schools, said she agrees that mental health concerns have changed drastically for the nation and its schools over the last couple of years.

“As a society, we have not kept up with the changes and now are on what I look at as a ‘catch-up response’ mode.

“For years we have not had adequate mental health services in the community, nor adequate funding for hiring trained professionals,” Helton said.

“Medicaid is the primary driver of the services. Oftentimes, no Medicaid, no services provided. We as an educational setting are charged with identifying students with mental health issues and then attempting to connect families with support.”

Alexander employs 15 school counselors and six SROs. However, this grant does not allow for additional personnel, Helton said. The school district will be focusing on resiliency training for staff instead.

Security system updates

The grant will allow the district to provide updates to building security, something other school districts have already been working on as well.

After an altercation between two students led to the fatal shooting of Bobby McKeithen by Jatwan Craig Cuffie in October 2018 at Butler High in Matthews, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools increased security measures, according to a school district statement.

Some of these new measures include a panic alert system, which staff members trigger to alert the central office of an emergency and warn others in the school. According to the Charlotte Observer, CMS began random screenings of school buildings using gun- and drug-sniffing dogs for weapons and contraband checks shortly after the October shooting.

All these efforts are made with a focus on prevention, Holden said.

“I don’t know if you can stop all of it,” Holden said. “But one of the things you can do is, if you work really hard on prevention and communicating among yourselves, … have a much better shot at it.”

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