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Orange County's Schools Safety Task Force presents final report

Students leave East Chapel Hill High School on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.

After five months of meeting,  the Orange County's Schools Safety Task Force presented their final report to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners during its Sept. 19 meeting. The task force was approved in late 2022 to enhance student safety in the county's two school districts.

"We need to support the schools in the situation where students aren't feeling safe," Jean Hamilton, a BOCC member said. 

She said Orange County Schools dealt with a lot of protests during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in 2021, a group of Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist organization that promotes white nationalism, protested outside of Orange High School during a football game in response to COVID-19 mask mandates and other safety precautions put in place by Orange County Schools.

Cassie Rice, a member of the task force, said she thinks the task force was established because of the protests at the football game and at school board meetings.

Alongside those concerns, she said she worries for her children's safety while they are at school.

"As a mom of kids going to school, I am scared that that's going to be the last time that I see them," Rice said. 

The main goals of the task force are to recommend new policies to the BOCC that address external threats and promote school safety for students and staff.

After the BOCC approved its formation at a board meeting in November 2022, the task force met six times between February and June of this year. At the meetings, they discussed protests, demonstrations, active assailant situations and public access to school property during school hours.

There are about 20 members of the task force, and they plan to meet annually in the future, Hamilton said.

In their final report, task force members discussed state statutes as well as local policies regarding protests and school safety. 

Ari Schein, a task force member, said their report found that school staff and law enforcement were informed of guidelines for potential threats to school safety to prevent unsafe protests and demonstrations.

"There was some planning and training and education that was recommended, both of law enforcement and responders as well as staff in schools, students and parents," Schein said.

In the report, members found that both Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have regular communications with law enforcement and have up-to-date safety plans.

Rice said she thinks the school systems within Orange County are doing a great job of keeping people safe. 

"Being in the school safety task force and understanding exactly how much law enforcement and the school systems work together, I knew that as long as there is not an active shooter on the property of my child's school, my kids were going to be 100 percent safe," she said.

Despite this, Rice said she thinks there is not enough social services funding for people who have less access to mental health resources. 

"The missing link is the social services and the funding for it," Rice said. 

School resource officers are members of law enforcement within schools. 

Executive Director of the Center for Safer Schools Karen Fairley said during one of the task force's meetings that school resource officers should not be seen as an enforcement arm of the school system. She said the purpose of having those officers is not to have them enforce school rules, like the dress code.

The task force came up with nine recommendations in total for the safety of schools in Orange County. Task force members advised physical boundaries of each school in the school districts be identified and shared with law enforcement, school staff and other groups.


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