Police officers will be back in Wake County schools this fall as school leaders try to reassure the community that students are safe following last month’s mass school shooting in Texas.
On Tuesday, the Wake County school board approved contracts with Raleigh, Apex, Cary and Garner to provide school resource officers for the 2022-23 school year. School administrators are signing contracts with the county’s other law enforcement agencies to ensure that every high school and middle school will continue to have an armed officer.
Concerns about school safety have risen since 19 students and two teachers were fatally shot on May 24 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
“School security has been at the forefront of many minds of our families, our students, our faculty and staff,” said school board chairwoman Lindsay Mahaffey.
But some speakers at Tuesday’s meeting argued that officers disproportionately target minority students for arrests and suspensions.
“Given the recent tragic shootings at schools across the nation, and the recent event at Sanderson High School, you will face many ideas and proposals to address the violence,” Adam Haller, a Wake parent, said in written comments to the board. “I ask that you react in the most measured way, and avoid the knee jerk reaction of hiring more SROs.”
Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst for the N. C. Justice Center’s Education & Law Project, urged the board to “Invest in personnel that actually make our schools safe” such as more counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists.
“We’ve seen multiple times that school resource officers don’t improve the safety of our schools,” Nordstrom said. “They don’t stop the school shootings. We’ve seen that in Texas. We’ve seen that in Florida.”
Wake had looked at removing school resource officers following the 2020 nationwide Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd. But Wake ultimately opted last year to approve an agreement that puts new rules in place when officers should intervene.
Less serious issues on campus are handled by school personnel. The majority of the times officers are supposed to intervene are for the most serious offenses, such as possession of controlled substances, gang activity, possession of weapons, assault on a student or adult and threats of mass violence.
School board member Christine Kushner said officers are trained in using restorative justice practices.
Few officers in elementary schools
There are 76 school resource officers in district schools. Most work in high schools and middle schools.
Apex and Holly Springs also provide school resource officers to elementary schools. But most elementary schools don’t have a full-time officer assigned to them. A few elementary schools have unarmed private security guards provided by the district.
District surveys have found that most parents and school employees support keeping officers at schools. This comes as state officials say 254 credible threats of planned school attacks were reported between Aug. 1 and May 31.
The police response to the Uvalde shooting has drawn criticism.
“I’m not going to armchair quarterback what happened down in Texas,” Russ Smith, Wake’s senior director of security, told the board. “But I’ll tell you in general, if something happens at one of our schools there’s going to be multiple responders.”
On Tuesday, the district’s Office of Security gave an overview of its work, which includes coordinating the school resource officer program and managing the private security contract that provides people such as bike patrol officers at schools and administrative buildings.
“This is an update for the community,” Mahaffey said. “Let them know where we’re at with an overview so that parents and school staff and our students know what we are doing in order to keep our students safe during the school day.”
The Office of Security also helps schools with their emergency plans, which includes procedures for locking down campuses.
▪ A code yellow partial lockdown is used when there’s a threat in the community but isn’t directed at the school, such as when law enforcement is in pursuit of a suspect in close proximity to a school.
▪ A code red complete lockdown is used when there’s a direct threat to the campus, such as law enforcement is in pursuit of a suspect moving in the direction of a school and runs onto the school property or into the building.
▪ Code green is used when a campus returns to normal after a lockdown.
Screening school visitors
The Office of Security is also handling the response to an outside security audit conducted by Florida-based School Safety Advocacy Council. The audit identified seven key areas, such as revising how schools handle visitors.
One of the recommendations Tuesday from the Wake School Health Advisory Council was consistent enforcement of background checks for all volunteers in schools, with one system for school visitor sign-in.
Among the steps moving forward, Smith said, is making sure that schools check visitors to see if they are on sex offender registry lists.
Smith said he’s also meeting next week with a vendor who wants to demonstrate a new safety product.
“We constantly assess all of our security systems,” Smith said.