Will more cops make North Carolina schools safer?

Will more cops make North Carolina schools safer?

Photo: Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

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Shortly after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, North Carolina adopted a budget that allocates more funding to put additional police officers in schools.

What’s happening: The $27.9 billion North Carolina 2022 budget includes an additional $15 million for the School Resource Officer (SRO) Grant program, bringing the total to about $33 million. The additional funding is for schools in “low-wealth” areas.

Qualifying schools can use the funds to employ or train SROs in elementary and middle schools.

  • Of note: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is not considered “low-wealth” by the state formula. The district can still apply for SRO grants, however; it just won’t receive as much funding, as WCNC noted recently.

By the numbers: CMS is increasing the number of SROs this year from 69 to 76, including 51 CMPD officers, according to a district spokesperson. The rest come from other agencies, and 13 are members of CMS’s own police department.

  • SROs are assigned to middle and high schools and “rove” elementaries. (CMS declined to provide a numerical breakdown of SROs per school, citing security reasons.)
  • In fiscal year 2023, the district’s budget for SRO contracts is approximately $7 million, an increase of $683,689 over last year.
  • CMPD placed two extra SROs at both North Mecklenburg and Hopewell high schools this year after responding to an uptick in on-campus altercations last school year. Districtwide, CMPD seized 28 firearms on school grounds in 2022-21.
  • The district also installed 21 body scanners in high schools and 48 in K-8 and middle schools.

What they’re saying: Capt. Leon Godlock, an ex officio member of the North Carolina Association of School Resource Officers, said additional funding will help schools hire a full-time SRO.

  • At one point, Godlock, who is retired from the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office and filling in as an SRO, said he was switching between four different schools.
  • “If we that are in the elementary schools can form enough positive relationships with these students, hopefully one day the attitude between young people and law enforcement will be so positive that we don’t have to have officers in the high schools,” he tells Axios.

The other side: Critics of SROs say that they disproportionately police students of color, as well as students with disabilities.

Juvenile behavior like truancy is being criminalized as a result of the presence of SROs, says Kristie Puckett Williams, deputy director for engagement and mobilization at the ACLU of NC.

  • “You’re literally going to embed the purveyors of violence in Black and brown communities into Black and brown schools,” she says.
  • Having police officers in schools won’t solve incidents of students bringing weapons to campus, Puckett WIlliams adds. Instead, she wants to see investments in community-wide solutions, such as mental health resources and ensuring students have safe housing.

A lot of communities, especially communities of color, want more counselors and more emotional support in schools — not more police, says James Ford, a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year and member at-large on the North Carolina State Board of Education.

Investing in measures to support students before they turn to violence would help make schools safer, Ford adds.

  • “Do you want to deal with the symptom or the source of the problem? If you want to deal with the symptom, we could lock kids up all day. It still won’t stop what’s happening upstream,” Ford says.

Ford pointed to Hopewell High in Huntersville, which recently brought in parents to monitor the hallways and connect with students as an alternative way to handle conflict. Parents volunteer for three-hour shifts throughout the day.

  • “Every hour that I put in, every minute I put in, every second that I put in, I feel like it makes a difference to somebody walking down that hallway,” Tramaine Smith, a Hopewell father and volunteer, told WCNC earlier this year.

Zoom out: The hyper-criminalization of youth of color in schools, the formal justice system and their communities affects how they view themselves, Darren Beneby, an assistant professor in the criminal justice department at North Carolina Central University, has found in his research.

  • “When kids are formerly labeled delinquent or criminal, then they begin to start to embrace and accept that label and as a result of that, their entire self concept is altered permanently and they begin to act out in accordance with those labels,” says Beneby, also a faculty affiliate at the Juvenile Justice Institute housed at NCCU.
  • His research also shows that SROs will contact probation officers, which can impact how successful students are on their probation.

The big picture: Calls for a reduction of police officers in schools have mirrored calls for a reduction in funding for the police overall following the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, as the NYT reports.

Godlock argues that SROs’ jobs are not about punishment.

  • And he said while students under 18 can be taken into custody for a serious crime, they have to be released to a parent or guardian, because of the Raise the Age legislation.
  • Under the law, which went into effect in 2021, 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer automatically charged in the adult criminal justice system.
  • “The days of just slapping handcuffs on kids and taking them away, those days are gone,” he says.

Robert Moorer starts his day before the bell rings.

The SRO, a member of the Huntersville Police Department, scans the outside perimeter of the building, checks for ajar doors and gates, then goes outside to direct traffic. The rest of the school day, he patrols the hallways, sits in on classes, supervises lunch. Once in a while, he’s called to an incident at another campus — almost always, it’s the high school.

“I’ll be honest with you: the last part of the year, I averaged being over there three to four times a week doing enforcement action,” he says.

Zoom out: CMPD did not provide data on the number of arrests in CMS schools as of publication of this story.

But figures from ProPublica’s Miseducation database show there were 188 total arrests in the school system, according to the data from the 2015-2016 school year.

Not all crimes on campus end in arrest, however. Local law enforcement offers the Youth Diversion Program. It’s a similar concept as probation, designed to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

  • By attending classes through Diversion, students can work their criminal charge off their record, Moorer says. And while recidivism does happen, a lot of students try their best not to wind up in the program again.
  • CMPD had not shared data on the program as of press time.

“Kids can get indoctrinated into not liking the police or things they see in the media that shows them things we do that puts us in a bad light,” Moorer says. “And we bring it on ourselves a lot of times.”

Moorer says he believes most high schoolers want police on campus, especially in light of recent school shootings. “We are the first line of defense,” he says. “If something like that was to occur, we should be the first one there.”

But Ford, the former NC Teacher of the Year, says it’s a mistake to equate improved school safety with more law enforcement.

  • “One need not look further than Uvalde. The presence of officers did not prevent or remedy an active shooter situation,” he says.

Editor’s note: We updated this story with quotes from an NCCU professor.

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