Safer Schools in North Carolina: What Parents Need to Know
Recent events, such as tornadoes in the Midwest and the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings, have spurred the nation's school districts to re-examine school security procedures. North Carolina's schools are no exception to this movement.
Several North Carolina school districts have created committees to review school safety measures and the state government recently formed the N.C. Center for Safer Schools within the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
"Gov. McCrory set up the center in March of this year partly as a response to Sandy Hook in December and because there have been a lot of concerns brought to him about school safety in North Carolina," says Kym Martin, executive director of NCCSS.
Following months of gathering data from across the state, NCCSS representatives made recommendations to Gov. Pat McCrory on key areas of concern to North Carolina citizens. Martin says NCCSS identified the following as recurring themes:
- Physical security at schools.
- Mental health agencies and the need for collaboration with schools.
- Roles of school resource officers.
- Programs to involve parents, including dads and male caregivers.
- Trusted adult mentors for students.
- Creative ways to handle school suspension.
- Bullying and cyberbullying.
Bullying: a prime culprit
A common complaint among students across the country and in North Carolina is bullying. In 2009, about 28 percent of students nationwide ages 12-18 reported being bullied in school, according to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. Additionally, 6 percent reported being cyberbullied outside of school. "Students (across the state) talked about knowing someone who had been bullied or being bullied themselves, and some felt they had people they could turn to while others did not," Martin says.
Ben Matthews, director of Healthy and Safe Schools for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, says it's important for students to report bullying behavior when they see it.
"If we see a fellow student in crisis, we share that with an appropriate adult, be it a teacher or a counselor," he says, noting that the School Safety Act legislation currently making its way through the legislature includes recommendations for more school counselors and resource officers.
Current safety measures at North Carolina public schools include drills, such as lockdown procedures and fire drills; the use of surveillance cameras; and various types of visitor check-in systems. Middle, high and some elementary schools also have school resource officers. Lockdown procedures typically use codes (red, yellow and green) to communicate safety threats. See the box, "Tap into School Safety," for a detailed description and helpful links.
Schools also receive a Critical Incident Response Kit, which provides information and materials to help schools respond to a crisis.
Russ Smith, senior director of Wake County Public School System's security department, says the $810 million bond request from the Wake County Board of Commissioners planned for the October 2013 ballot includes a security element and is the only way to fund certain costly, systemwide security measures. WCPSS administrators are also working to develop a system for an anonymous tip line. "Every school administration should have the same tools in the toolbox to keep children as safe as possible," Smith says.
Durham Public Schools plans to send home a new parent guide this fall that specifically addresses what parents should know or do if there is an emergency at school, says Tamika Puckett, DPS's director of risk management.
Re-examining school safety
The Task Force for Creating Safer Schools in Wake County, created by WCPSS Board Chariman Keith Sutton in February, released a report in June that recommended making sure every school has a bullying prevention program, sufficient counseling staff, proper surveillance and a minimum of quarterly drills for evacuation and lockdown procedures. The task force did not recommend arming school staff members.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools formed the Superintendent's Safety Council to measure and improve campus security. This group includes chiefs of police from the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and expects to contract with a safety consultant.
"We believe our schools are safe places for children and staff," says Jeff Reilly, chairman of the CHCS Superintendent's Safety Council. "However, we will never rest on our safety record. We now, and always will, continue to seek out strategies that improve security at our schools."
Parent involvement is key
North Carolina officials say one of the best ways to create safer schools is for parents and students to get involved in school safety. Tina Ingram, DPS director of security, says it's important for parents to follow visiting procedures and to remember they can report information anonymously by text or online. "They (parents) are part of our safety plan," Ingram says.
Many schools use direct phone messaging systems to inform parents of standard announcements as well as critical information. CHCC Schools, DPS and WCPSS use email notification systems for alerts and closings. School systems often post to websites and social media as well.
"Talk with children about processes and procedures. Sign up for notification systems and make sure that the information is kept up to date and accurate," WCPSS's Smith says. "Our contacts are only as good as the information that parents provide."
Representatives of DPS and CHCC Schools echo that sentiment, saying it is integral to school safety for students to report dangerous situations. See "What Parents Should Say About School Safety" on page XX for more tips.
Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle area freelance writer and editor.
What Every Parent Should Say to Kids About School Safety
- Explain the facts about school safety and the steps schools are taking.
- Explain the odds. The chances of being killed in schools are less than one in a million.
- Explain that everyone has a responsibility for making schools safe — even children.
- Explain that violence is not an acceptable solution.
- Ask questions about how your child feels about her school's safety. Are there places at school she avoids because she feels unsafe? Actively listen to her answers and follow up with the school to find out what is being done to solve the problem.
Visit ncdps.gov and search for N.C. Center for Safer Schools for a more detailed list of suggestions.
Tap into School Safety: Helpful Resources
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools – CHCC Schools uses Blackboard Connect to make automated telephone calls and send emails providing community event reminders, important parent and staff messages, attendance notifications, and emergency communications. Parents automatically subscribe to Blackboard Connect when they give contact information to their child's school.
Durham Public School System – DPS offers a ConnectEd Notification System (a phone communication service), a parent hotline at 919-560-9129 and DPS Cable Channel 4 to communicate information. The school system also uses local radio and television station broadcasts to notify parents of important information and offers a weather/closing email alert service at dpsnc.net/forms/weather-closing-alert-email-sign-up.
Wake County Public School System – WCPSS offers an email notification service parents can sign up for at www.wcpss.net/parents/stay-informed.html.
WCPSS administration and individual schools have automated calling systems using contact numbers provided to schools. Messages pertain to school absences, emergencies and other announcements.
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction – dpi.state.nc.us
North Carolina Center for Safer Schools – ncdps.gov
The Lowdown on Lockdown
If there is a potential threat of an unsafe situation to your child's school, the school may go on "lockdown" to protect students, staff and visitors. For example, here is how the code system for Wake County Public Schools works:
- Code Red: Indicates an immediate threat and requires students to be moved into safe areas. All interior and exterior doors are locked.
- Code Yellow: If there is a nearby community threat, such as a bank robbery or police chase in the neighborhood, all outdoor activities stop and students move into the building. Outer doors are locked and movement between buildings is prohibited, but all other activities continue as normal.
- Code Green: Indicates that the incident has passed and the lockdown has ended.
There is currently no set standard for how lockdown procedures should be carried out.
"This will be something the Department of Public Safety through our Emergency Management Division and the Center for Safer Schools will be trying to establish," says William Lassiter, deputy director for the N.C. Center for Safer Schools. "The national system recommended by the Department of Homeland Security is moving away from codes and plans to use plain English instead."
So if a school must go into lockdown mode, Lassiter says, school officials should simply announce this and provide instructions to staff, students and parents. He advises parents to ask for a copy of their child's school's procedures, since these can vary from district to district.