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House bill addresses NC public school safety

RALEIGH (AP) — A House bill to help North Carolina school districts hire more police officers and behavioral staff, install panic alarms in every classroom and work more closely with law enforcement shows what bipartisan cooperation can accomplish, its sponsors said Thursday.
Democrats and Republicans hailed the proposal as among the most comprehensive in the nation and one that addresses school safety threats following the Connecticut school massacre in December and other mass shootings over the years.
“This product ought to relieve the minds of our parents and our general public when it comes to school safety,” Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, a retired principal, said at a news conference promoting the measure. “Education, really when you think about it, takes a back seat to safety. Safety is the most paramount concern.”
Legislators from both parties endorsed a measure that would provide $30 million over two years in matching grants for districts to hire more school resource officers in elementary and middle schools, psychologists and guidance counselors. There’s also $4 million in grants to help put panic alarms in every classroom in the state by July 2015 in case of an emergency.
The bill, developed at the direction of Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, also requires more routine school and district-wide crisis planning exercises, directs the creation of local anonymous tip lines to take in reports of potential threats and demands police receive school building schematics and master keys.
“This is when you’ve got to take your partisan blinders off, and you try to certainly work together,” said Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, another primary sponsor of the bill, which could be heard in the House Education Committee as soon as next week. The Senate also would have to agree to the provisions.
Added co-sponsor Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland: “I have full confidence that we’ll be able to pass this bill.”
Holloway said he believed the measure aligns with the efforts of Gov. Pat McCrory, who announced last week the revival and retooling of a school safety center in the Department of Public Safety.
The North Carolina Center for Safer Schools will evaluate best practices to protect North Carolina students and teachers and help districts respond effectively to potential threats. McCrory hadn’t taken a position on the bill Thursday because he had yet to read it but “school safety is a priority of this administration,” spokeswoman Crystal Feldman said.
The bill would use the center to develop emergency and training programs for school employees and help decide what should be in crisis kits at each school.
The legislation attempts to address external threats like the one that led to the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., but also to threats within schools, which are more common, Glazier said. School counselors and psychologists are conduits for information from students about whether friends are acting unusually or are threatening to bring a gun on campus, he said.
The bill doesn’t address whether teachers, school personnel or volunteers should be armed, as some introduced legislation this year has suggested. The bill keeps it to school districts to set policy as to whether school resource officers should carry firearms in school hallways.
The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest teacher lobbying group, provided input to the bill it supports. The association is glad it doesn’t attempt to expand gun possession to classroom employees, said association President Rodney Ellis.
Association members didn’t “want to have to start arming ourselves to come to school. We want to come to school armed with a passion for teaching students and that’s it,” he said.
Local governments would receive $1 or $2 in state funds for each dollar they spend on the new hires or the alarm systems, depending on the program. School resource officer grants also could be used for officer training.
More than half of the state’s high schools already are assigned school resource officers. Districts already can tap into two funding streams to hire school psychologists or counselors, but they aren’t required to spend the money in that way.

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