Cooper proposes million-dollar NC budget deal to improve school safety

ASHEVILLE – Gov. Roy Cooper touted his proposal to spend an additional $130 million on public school safety and prevention across the state while on a visit to an area high school Monday.

The proposal comes after an increased number of shooting threats have been made to schools in Western North Carolina, resulting in lockdowns, arrests, heightened fear among parents and student protests demanding changes be made to keep schools safer.

Cooper addressed a room full of students, faculty and other local representatives at Roberson High School after taking a tour of the campus, noting the 45 different entrances into the sprawling school grounds and the danger that imposes.

“Across the country there are too many reminders of things that could go wrong,” Cooper said. “After the tragic shooting in Parkland, these issues have created new urgency.”

Cooper first announced his school safety plan last week. It advocates a three-fold approach to the issue: prevention, upgrades and added security measures.

Cooper’s visit to Roberson was one of several events that brought most of his cabinet secretaries plus other top officials to different locations around Western North Carolina Monday to discuss regional and statewide issues.

For instance, Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon traveled to Robbinsville to present his department’s Extra Mile Award to three DOT employees there credited with helping save a motorist’s life. Administration Secretary Machelle Sanders visited Safelight, a nonprofit helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Hendersonville.

Events were to be held in at least seven WNC counties: Buncombe, Burke, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania.

The officials gathered at UNC Asheville Monday afternoon to discuss initiatives in their departments affecting WNC, and Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen were to attend a roundtable discussion of opioid addiction later Monday.

Cooper will ask the General Assembly to include the $130 million for school safety in the state’s 2018-19 budget during the legislature’s next session, which begins May 16.

The need for more school counselors and mental health support systems was at the center of his announcement.

State Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, was in attendance to show his support. Turner has been an advocate of school nurse funding in the legislature.

North Carolina, as well as the National Association of School Nurses, recommends one school nurse for every 750 students, a standard the state isn’t meeting in general. According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, one nurse is commonly charged with treating over a thousand students, ranking NC as one of the 20 worst states for mental health in schools.

“School nurses and counselors have a critical role in mental health and are often able to spot signs of trouble and help kids who may be prone to violence,” Cooper said.

The governor said $40 million in his proposal would go toward funding approximately 500 additional school nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers for public schools. He also wants more training for teachers and others to spot early warning signs of mental illness.

The need for more school resource officers was at the top of Jamie Cummings’ list of demands for Cooper. A Roberson senior, the 18-year-old was one of the school ambassadors leading Cooper’s school tour.

Cummings, along with fellow student ambassador Ashley Teague, were instrumental in planning local student demonstrations after the Parkland, Florida, shooting left 17 dead.

“It’s good that even though it’s tragic that this issue is coming to light because of school shootings people are now working to keep us safe,” said Teague, 17, a junior. “Our school is currently a safe target, since we have so many entrances, many of them unlocked or students just open doors for people who are knocking on them. We can’t defend ourselves from a shooter, and we shouldn’t be afraid to go to school.”

In response, Cooper said that $10 million will go toward funding more SROs and $65 million will go toward facility upgrades. He emphasized that his plan does not include arming teachers, which he did not feel was the most effective way to eliminate threats.

Building upgrades have been a major point of concern for superintendents in Swain and Yancey counties. A handful of their facilities are close a century old, and contain floor-to-ceiling length windows with dozens of entrances and only one SRO to patrol hallways.

“My budget proposal will include money going towards improving door locks to prevent threats, among other things,” Cooper said.

In addition, Cooper wants to allot $500,000 for schools to have an opportunity to design an individualized safety plan.

A legislative committee has been studying many of the same issues regarding school safety that Cooper’s budget proposal addresses, including whether current funding levels for school employees who deal with mental health issues is adequate and whether more law enforcement officers are needed in schools.

The prospects for at least some action during the coming legislative session appear to be good, although the Republicans who control the General Assembly and Cooper, a Democrat, are often at odds.

Cooper in March said the state’s requirement for a background check and the county sheriff’s approval before someone can buy a pistol should be extended to purchases of so-called “assault weapons” like an AR-15.

He also said the state should raise the legal age for such purchases to 21 and that he was asking the State Bureau of Investigation to ensure that the state is providing the correct information to the federal database used for background checks for gun purchases.

Legislative studies this year have placed little emphasis on gun restrictions.

“We cannot rely on Washington or wait for them to react to our needs,” Cooper said at Roberson Monday. “We need resources to prevent violence and protect our schools for years to come.”

Buncombe County sheriff’s Lt. Mike Ruby, the school’s student resource officer, and Principal Bonnie Johnston told the group of students who attended the announcement to remember the significance of the day’s events.

“This is an important moment for schools across the state of North Carolina,” Johnston said. “When you graduate and walk out of those doors, remember you were present when this announcement was made — made to change schools.”