ABC11 Investigates

Schools understaffed on safety

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On December 14, 2012, America had to stop and catch its collective breath. The massacre of 20 elementary school students - just 6 to 7 years old - at Sandy Hook robbed us all of the illusion that some things were off limits.

The attack also fundamentally changed the conversation about school safety across America and North Carolina. There's a push to have school resource officers in every school in the state.

And while there are not enough officers in schools, some say it's not just about how many there are. Child advocate Rob Thompson - with the group Covenant With NC's Children - told ABC11 officers need to be trained about more than just guns so they can head off incidents before they turn violent.  

Thompson points out that while resource officers can get training in crisis intervention, child development, and therapeutic restraint, it's not required in North Carolina.

In Wake County, the head of school security tells us all his current officers do have that training, but he admits it's not up to him to ensure they get it.

"We have 10 agencies who are providing officers throughout Wake County, 10 agencies that operate in different manners," explained Russ Smith.

And that's just one of the staffing issues we uncovered while looking at school safety.

"We are really far behind when it comes to having sufficient mental health counselors in schools," said Thompson.

He says school psychologists and social workers are also on the front lines of keeping schools safe, but they're are under-prioritized, understaffed, and overworked.

"They are so overwhelmed. Many are serving multiple schools," he explained.

The numbers bear that out. The I-Team has learned that while advocates recommend one social worker for every 400 students, the state averages one for every 1,650 students. The same goes for school psychologists. The recommendation is one to 700 students on the high end, but the state currently provides one for just under every 2,000.

"They are spread very thinly," said NC School Superintendent June Atkinson.

Atkinson says that needs to change, and there is a new bill in the legislature, promising up to $70 million for psychologists, social workers, and resource officers. But, Atkinson says even that wouldn't get us where we need to be.

"I would say 70 million dollars would be about 40 percent of the way. That would get us almost halfway there," she explained. "We have to make the investment, or we'll pay later with social services, incarceration, and tragedies like we have seen in Connecticut and Colorado."

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