As North Carolina educators, law enforcement and state officials gathered in Gastonia for a back-to-school safety summit, vendors lined the hall pitching body-armor backpacks, bulletproof windows, panic alarms and weapon scanners — reminders that the threat of school shootings always lurks.
But officials who launched the three-day session Monday said that’s only part of the safety scene.
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said the past year has brought “an uptick in some school safety challenges.” At the top of that list, she said, is “hoaxes and swatting. If you work in a public school, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
False threats, often spread through social media, may not result in violence but they drain time and resources, she said.
“And in addition to this trend, we know that school climate, bullying prevention and suicide prevention continue to be a focus to schools following the pandemic,” Truitt told the group.
In an interview, she said schools must balance emergency preparations and the daily school climate: “There’s the hardening of schools and the technology that is needed, but there’s also the human piece. Schools are about people, so we have to make sure that all of our educators have as much training as possible to be able to recognize the mental health aspect.”
Truitt added that teachers should not be responsible for providing mental health services, but should be trained to spot warning signs and send students to clinicians or counselors.
As an example of technology to deal with emergencies, she mentioned that in February the state introduced the Rave panic alarm, a phone app that’s free to all schools to notify law enforcement and other first responders of an emergency.
State Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, also talked about the competing demands: “There’s two schools of thought and I jokingly call them gadgets and gizmos, and mental health.”
Torbett said this year’s bipartisan approval of a bill that requires schools to have threat assessment teams in place by 2024 focuses on mental health but could prevent violence inside and outside schools. The teams include administrators, counselors, school resource officers and others who might spot or respond to signs that a student is struggling. The goal is to get those students help before a crisis emerges.
“So if we do it right and we communicate, we observe and we share and we find solutions, we can change that individual that’s thinking about harming himself or harming others,” he said.
The North Carolina Center for Safer Schools, which is part of the Department of Public Instruction, is hosting the three-day summit, which continues through Wednesday. Only the opening remarks were open to the news media.