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House Committee approves school safety measures including anonymous tip line expansion

Lawmakers at Thursday’s House Select Committee on School Safety meeting approved statewide expansion of the SPK UP NC application – an anonymous tip line that allows students to report suspicious behavior. 

Rep. Donna McDowell White, R-Johnston, presented on the recommendation from the subcommittee on student health. She recalled a long list of shootings — including Parkland, Columbine, and the Pulse Night Club shootings — that she said shared one common factor: after the fact, there was someone who admitted earlier suspiscions the shooting would happen. 

“Over 170 deaths could have been prevented if that one person had a way or had been heard or had spoken up, and that’s what the SPK UP app or the anonymous tip line does for students,” said White.

White’s comments garnered an array of questions from Democratic representatives with concerns about student misuse of the application.

Rep. Bobbie Richardson (D-Franklin) asked if there was any evidence of students abusing the application in light of recent instances where innocent individuals have been wrongly reported to law enforcement.

Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange) pointed out that many schools have policies against the use of mobile phones, and said she would move to amend the recommendation to make the SPK UP NC application optional rather than required.

White urged the committee to support this recommendation, asking members if they would want to be held accountable for the 170 deaths that could have been prevented if people had a way to report tips.

The measure was one of 14 recommendations on school safety the committee approved for review during the 2018 legislative session. The meeting was the first time the full House Select Committee on School Safety met since splitting into two working groups — student health and physical safety — that each met twice.

Student health recommendations

Rep. Josh Dobson, R-Avery, chair of the subcommittee on student health, presented six recommendations, including the app expansion, that received unanimous support from the student health subcommittee. The recommendations included measures to increase support for students’ social and emotional needs and implementation of threat assessment teams in schools. 

Physical safety recommendations

Rep. John Bell, R-Craven, chair of the subcommittee on physical safety, presented the eight recommendations brought forth by the physical safety subcommittee.

One new addition to these recommendations, added by Rep. MaryAnn Black, D-Durham, is a requirement to include diversity and equity training for all introductory training and continuing education standards for school resources officers (SROs).

“It is important to me that as we move forward in keeping our students and our educators safe, that we are keeping all of our students safe,” said Black. “It’s important to understand equity among people and the way in which we treat people.”

The final recommendation of the subcommittee on physical safety said House Bill 285, Suicide Prevention/Awareness School Personnel, should be enacted during the 2018 short session. This bill was already passed by the House.

Criminal law recommendations

Legislative staff member Susan Sitze presented recommendations on changes in criminal laws from Pitt County District Attorney Kim Robb. Since these recommendations were offered late, the chairs decided to present the recommendations to the Committee before determining if they should be included in the report.

This bill includes the following changes:

  1. Elevates felony charges for possessing a weapon both inside a vehicle on educational property and on educational campuses.
  2. Elevates the misdemeanor penalties against minors who carry weapons.
  3. Increases the penalties on making a false report concerning mass violence on educational property.
  4. Creates a new offense of communicating a threat of mass violence on educational property. These offenses are currently covered as Class 1 misdemeanors, while this legislation would charge this behavior as a Class F felony.
  5. Increases the penalty for improperly storing firearms to make them accessible to minors.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, voiced concerns over this proposed measure, saying these recommendations should not be included in the Committee’s report.

“There’s a notion that we’d be saddling these youngsters with a felony record for possibly what may have been a bad day, stupid comment,” said Harrison. “There are a lot of children, including those with disabilities and of color, who may be unintentionally targeted.”

Insko voiced concerns that these recommendations were not supported by anyone who work in schools, such as teachers and school psychologists.

After brief discussion, the co-chairs decided the new recommendations would not be included in the Committee’s report.

Final comments and next steps

After unanimously approving three amendments from Dobson, Harrison, and Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, final comments were heard before voting to approve the report.

Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, voiced disappointment over the committee’s failure to discuss firearms and red flag laws, among other things. Even though these topics were discussed during the committee’s first meeting, since they were not discussed in subcommittees, they could not be addressed in the final report.

Jackson also said the recommendations do not include sufficient funding for increasing SROs, school counselors, and school psychologists. Of the $80 million dollars needed for increased SRO coverage, the committee’s recommendation includes $1.8 million.

“This process has been a necessary discussion, and I believe this is a necessary bill, but don’t fool yourself — this bill is no where near sufficient,” said Jackson. “We have not done hardly anything to address this problem and this real danger in our schools.”

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, co-chair of the committee, closed the session by emphasizing that this is only the beginning of the committee’s work, especially since they have been tasked with considering school safety on community college and UNC System campuses across the state.

“Unlike many interim committees, today is not the end of this process,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, co-chair of the committee. “The chairs will continue to work with our budget teams during the short session, and this committee will continue to work on items discussed today and on new items that come forward.”

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells was the chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.