Fact-checking 3 of Michele Morrow’s claims about school safety | #schoolsaftey

State Education Superintendent candidate Michele Morrow says North Carolina needs to do a better job of keeping public school students safe.

Morrow’s rhetoric on the classroom security — alleging that classrooms have become less safe in recent years — helped her defeat incumbent superintendent Catherine Truitt in the Republican primary. Morrow, a homeschool educator and conservative activist, will now face Democrat Mo Green, a former Guilford County Schools superintendent, in the November election.

At an event in Cary on Wednesday, Morrow suggested North Carolina’s public school classrooms were out of control — referring to a video from a Forsyth County classroom this month showing someone slapping a teacher. Morrow said she wants to “empower teachers to be able to control their classrooms,” saying the report from Forsyth County “was not an isolated incident.”

While some of Morrow’s claims have merit, we found that some of them lacked some context that would’ve given her audience a different impression.

Morrow claimed: “Last year alone, more than 1,500 teachers were assaulted on the job in North Carolina. And we have to ask ourselves, why are teachers leaving teaching?”

Morrow’s number is about right, but she’s drawing a link between assaults on teachers and teacher turnover that hasn’t been proven.

North Carolina’s public schools reported a total of 1,482 incidents of assault on school personnel during the 2022-2023 school year, according to a report compiled by the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction.

That number — 1,482 — is up 7.9% from the prior school year but is down about 1% from five years ago, the report shows. North Carolina public schools reported 1,495 incidents of assault on school personnel during the 2018-19 school year.

As for teacher turnover, the number of teachers leaving North Carolina’s public schools recently hit a 20-year-high. However, state officials didn’t single-out classroom violence as the underlying cause.

A state report released earlier this month didn’t pinpoint a specific cause for why teachers are leaving, WRAL reported. Teachers often complain about needing more pay and more support, but exit surveys in North Carolina don’t include questions about those topics.

Later in the event, Morrow offered an even broader look at violence in schools — not just against teachers.

Morrow claimed: “Did you know that in the last five years, the reports of crime and violence inside of our school buildings has gone up 84%? There was more than 13,000 cases of crimes and violence that have been reported in the last year.”

Morrow is right about the amount of crime and violence reported in public schools, but the state report doesn’t back up her claim that there’s been an 84% increase over five years.

The state’s report lists “crime and violence” together as one category that includes more than a dozen types of criminal acts.

Local school districts reported 13,193 acts of crime and violence last year. That means the rate of crime and violence hit 8.77 incidents per 1,000 students — a 10-year high. Drug possession accounted for 54% of the cases and weapon possession accounted for 24% of them.

The total amount of crime and violence was up 18.1% over the prior year — and 38.1% from five years ago, when 9,554 incidents occurred during the 2018-19 school year.

While violence is up, Morrow said many students who commit crimes are allowed to stay in the classroom. She referred to cases in Charlotte, where public school officials have come under fire for how they handle rape and sexual assault cases.

Morrow said the federal government incentivizes schools to keep students in the classroom.

Morrow claimed: “The reason why that’s happening is that the federal government is demanding that we are lessening the number of suspensions and expulsions. They want the numbers to look good so that parents think everything is fine.”

Let’s address three things here: federal funding, suspension numbers, and how disciplinary decisions are made.

The federal government places conditions on some of the funding it gives to the state, said Blair Rhoades, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

“Federal special education laws, for example, condition the receipt of federal monies for special education services on compliance with the restrictions on suspension or expulsion of special needs students,” Rhoades told WRAL in an email. “The federal special education laws have long had such restrictions.”

Decisions over student discipline are made at the local level on a case-by-case basis, she said.

“The State Board (of Education) and DPI have no authority to intervene in such local matters,” Rhoades said. And neither group has adopted any specific policies regarding the suspension or expulsion of students, Rhoades said.

“The short of it is that each case is specific to the students involved,” she said. “It is very difficult to generalize why some individuals accused of criminal activities are returned to school and some not.”

Contacted by PolitiFact, Morrow campaign manager Sloan Rachmuth cited an article about a 2014 memo from the Obama administration advising school superintendents that racial disparities in suspension rates could put their federal funding at risk. In 2018, Trump repealed that policy. Last year, the Biden administration issued its own guidance on school discipline practices but didn’t fully resurrect the Obama-era policy.

Morrow’s comment about suspensions could give the impression that fewer students are being removed from the classroom — but that’s not the case. Data from the 2022-2023 school year shows that suspensions and expulsions were up.

Local school districts reported 247,454 short-term suspensions, an increase of 13.5% over the prior year. Districts reported 708 long-term suspensions, an increase of 2.2% over the prior year. Districts reported 64 expulsions, an increase of 33.3%.

In-school suspensions were also up. The state reported 256,314 incidents of in-school suspension during the 2022-2023 school year, up 18.4% from the prior year.

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