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Cooper outlines proposed $130 million for school safety and mental health

While conversations around the state and country on school safety continue, Governor Roy Cooper announced Thursday his budget proposal will include $130 million for efforts to protect students and educators. The funding would go to facility upgrades, school resource officers, mental health programs, school emergency planning, and school support personnel like nurses and counselors, he said.

“As a parent and as the governor of this state, I have a duty to try and keep a child (from) ever having to text a parent, ‘Mom, there’s a shooter in my classroom,'” Cooper said in a press conference at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough. “No educator should ever have to put him or herself between a student and a dangerous weapon. No parent should ever have to wonder whether their child is going to make it out alive. Brave students across North Carolina and across this country are making their voices heard. They want action. I do too.”

Of the proposed funding around school safety, $65 million would pay for school facility upgrades like video monitoring systems, secure doors, and panic alarms. Forty million dollars would provide more than 500 additional positions for professionals like school nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers. Another $10 million would fund school resource officers. Fifteen million dollars would go to mental health programs in and out of school, along with early childhood programs addressing trauma and supporting families. Lastly, $444,000 would help schools with risk planning through the School Risk Management System.

Cooper said he will release his entire proposed budget in a couple weeks but will reveal previews of different recommendations sooner. Both the House and the Senate will separately release their budget proposals and then work to reach a compromise by the end of the short session.

The mental and physical health of students has been at the forefront of heightened conversations and protests since the shooting in Parkland, Florida in February that left 17 students and staff dead. 

“We can not afford to wait on Washington to act on school safety,” Cooper said. “We need to keep guns out of the wrong hands and off of our school campuses, and we have to provide our schools the funding to help keep our kids safe.”

Jennifer Pepin, a school nurse at Cedar Ridge spoke at the event, saying she is lucky to work within Orange County Public Schools where every traditional public school has a full-time nurse. That is not the case in most districts.

“Being in the school all day every day allows me the opportunity to build relationships with staff and students,” Pepin said. “I am able to be accessible to students who are often dealing with a wide range of social, emotional, mental, and physical challenges in their lives. They know they can come to me without an appointment at any time during the day.”

Pepin said she has seen a rise in the number of students dealing with mental health issues and substance abuse problems in the decade she has worked at Cedar Ridge. She said teachers need professional help to meet students’ complex needs outside of academics.

“One student in the classroom with these kinds of needs can distract the entire class from the real reason why they are in school,” she said. “… Without appropriate support resources in our schools, teachers are left to struggle with when and how to deal with students in need of help, and students are left to suffer until a crisis happens.”

Cooper said funding for school resource officers will support a role that does more than protect kids’ physical safety. Lawmakers discussed more training, pay, and respect for the position earlier this week

“They establish relationships with kids,” Cooper said. “They help them with mental health needs and with guidance.”

Cooper said flexibility will be given to superintendents on the specifics of how the money is used in their districts. 

“We think that this is an area that has been neglected, and with things like class size mandate and with overall school funding not as robust as we want it to be, superintendents have, in order to be able to provide more teachers and more classrooms, sometimes they’ve had to cut back on these support personnel,” he said. “And we know that that is critical to school safety and the health of these children. So this is a start, and it is a signal to the system that we value those school support personnel.”

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Durham, Orange, and Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham, Orange, were both at the press conference Thursday. Meyer said he sees potential for bipartisan movement around school safety in the upcoming short session.

“We’ve heard, across party lines, an interest in addressing school mental health needs as a way to improve school safety and, as a long time school social worker, that’s music to my ears,” Meyer said. “If people actually want to talk about mental health in schools, let’s do that.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.