RALEIGH, N.C. — Putting more highly qualified armed officers inside North Carolina schools to protect students requires more training and prestige, not simply the extra money to hire them, current and former law enforcement told state legislators Tuesday.
Speakers before a House subcommittee studying school and student safety improvements after the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead at a Florida high school suggested efforts to improve the overall quality and quantity of school resource officers statewide. Two subcommittees — the other looking at student health and mental health needs — are working to make safety recommendations for next month’s legislative session.
There were roughly 1,000 school resource officers from local departments working in districts statewide in 2015, according to the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools.
The officers “are the base, the foundation. Yes, we need them. We need more,” said Chip Hughes, the recent chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Safe Schools. “We need to make sure they’re qualified, want to be there and are able to do their job and have all the necessary tools and training.”
Hughes said working in a school hasn’t always been a sought-after position. Subcommittee speakers said the job may be given to an officer trying to finish out their career before retirement, or to someone who isn’t necessarily an agency’s top-notch officer.
While it’s considered a best practice for a school resource officer to receive at least 40 hours of special training through the state’s Justice Academy, state law only requires that the law enforcement officer be a sworn officer to serve in a school. Hughes said increasing pay or rank could make the posts more appealing.
But Hughes, also a former state Highway Patrol trooper, acknowledged that law enforcement across the state and nation are struggling to attract qualified officers and deputies in general, let along for schools duty.
“I’m sure every sheriff and every chief wished that he had people just chomping at the bit to go into a school as a school resource officer and that he could put that 25-year-old in there that could jump tall buildings in a single bound,” state Rep. Allen McNeill, a former chief deputy in the Randolph County Sheriff’s Department. “But that’s not the real world.”
Subcommittee members sounded interested Tuesday in recommendations to make special training mandatory for school officers, as well as to increase state matching funds for local school districts to pay for officers. The matching formula should be changed to help smaller or rural districts, said Rep. Linda Johnson, a Cabarrus County Republican, a top budget writer.
The legislature passed a 2013 law creating a volunteer program allowing local governments to use retired officers or military police to provide additional armed protection at schools. The volunteer must receive child development training and must meet firearm proficiency standards set by state law enforcement standards.
Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page said he supports the program but told the committee it’s been stalled because statewide training details are still being developed.
The subcommittee also heard from the Joe Haas, president of the North Carolina Christian School Association. Haas asked for new laws that would allow a private school board to authorize staff with concealed weapons permits to be further trained so they can provide on-campus security. There are 750 schools serving more than 100,000 non-public school students, Haas said.
“Non-public school students deserve the right to be educated in a safe environment,” he said.
Arming public school teachers and other school personnel wasn’t addressed Tuesday and is unlikely to be in the subcommittee’s proposals, but at least one House member still wants colleagues to consider it. An email signed by GOP Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County to all state legislators said giving teachers the option and providing them tactical training would provide a “powerful deterrent to those who wish to do harm.”
Otherwise, should children be killed, Pittman wrote in the email obtained by The Associated Press, “their blood will be on our hands. I cannot accept that. I hope you will think this through and find that you cannot accept it, either.”