Sally Johnson, a first-year teacher at McDougle Elementary School, has already had to talk to her fourth-grade students about school lockdown drills, gun violence and the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where nearly two dozen students and teachers were shot and killed.
In 2022, 83 people were injured or killed in 27 different school shootings.
One person has been injured and one person killed in North Carolina in school shootings since the start of the school year.
According to a 2019 Associated Press-NORC poll, 67 percent of American adults said they felt schools were less safe than 20 years prior, 19 percent said they felt they were about as safe and only 13 percent said they felt safer.
While Johnson said McDougle Elementary generally feels safe, her students are concerned about both the usefulness of active shooter drills and their own security.
“When we did talk about the drills, my kids were concerned about the ‘what if?’ situations,” Johnson said. “They brought up a pretty valid point of: ‘Wouldn’t the shooter know where we are if we’re practicing this all the time?’”
Johnson said that while she is often a primary resource for her students’ mental health, she has received no formal training from her school on supporting kids with gun violence-related concerns.
She added that school support staff, including counselors, has struggled to keep up with students’ needs this school year.
“Our support staff have been spread pretty thin this year,” Johnson said. “When teachers don’t have the appropriate training or resources, they’re the ones that get turned to after that, so we’re all having to bear quite a lot of weight right now.”
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Chief Communications Officer Andy Jenks said officials for the school system and local law enforcement met the afternoon of the shooting in Uvalde to discuss short- and long-term solutions to school safety issues.
The first short-term step, Jenks said, was increasing the police presence at elementary schools in the district.
He said that while CHCCS middle and high schools have school resource officers on their campuses daily, elementary schools are often left without law enforcement protection.
Chapel Hill Community Safety Public Information Officer Alex Carrasquillo said that following the events at Uvalde, security was enhanced at schools in the district, particularly elementary schools without a school resource officer.
“School resource officers at the middle and high schools check on their neighboring elementary schools during the day,” he said. “A reserve SRO is also helping check on the elementary schools. Our officers who are on patrol also check on the elementary schools as their call volume allows.”
He said that Chapel Hill High School, East Chapel Hill High School, Guy B. Phillips Middle School, Smith Middle School and Culbreth Middle School have SROs.
Jenks said that longer-term solutions are still in a discussion phase, but increased police presence both in schools and in their surrounding communities is being implemented for at least the final days of the 2021-2022 school year.
“It’s infuriating to us that we continue to have these conversations, but it’s also important that we have these conversations about making the schools as safe as they can be for the staff, for our students and for the community,” he said.
Jenks added that the mental, social and emotional side of safety is just as important as physical safety. He said the goal is to have a mental health support system at every school that is able to meet the social and emotional needs of students and staff.
In February, CHCCS used an $868,000 grant from the Orange County Board of County Commissioners to fund ten new support staff positions focused on mental health and social and emotional learning.
“At the end of the day, we want to be sure that every student and every staff member feels as though there is a trusted adult at the building with whom they can have discussions about whatever is on their mind,” Jenks said. “In the aftermath of what happened in Texas, there are many folks in our buildings who are, sadly, equipped to be able to do that.”
Jenks said the CHCCS’s top priority is the safety of its schools and students, and that the school system will work tirelessly to keep violence away from its 20 school campuses.
“Nobody should have to send their children to school or go to work wondering if tragedy will reach them,” he said.
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