note: a shorter version of this post appeared in the Charlotte Observer
To be honest, it felt like just a matter of time until it happened. Our nation’s school shooting epidemic finally reached Charlotte this week, as 16 year-old Butler High freshman Bobby McKeithen was shot and killed by a classmate after a fight in a school hallway spiraled out of control.
Families, friends and educators are left to grieve and wonder what they could have done differently. That question is impossible to answer with any kind of certainty. But one thing is clear: our students need better conflict resolution skills and ways of coping with their emotions. In public schools, our school counselors, psychologists, and social workers form the front lines for helping students develop those skills that will provide them with the foundation they need to be socially and emotionally healthy and allow us to maintain safe and productive environments for all.
This past February, the Parkland, Florida school massacre ended the lives of seventeen students and staff members. In the wake of that horrific tragedy, North Carolina legislators created the House Select Committee on School Safety to explore what measures could be taken in our schools to keep our students safe. Unsurprisingly, they found that current student support services staffing ratios are far below what the industry sets as standards. For example, the nationally recommended ratio of students to school psychologists is 1:700, but our state average is 1:1857.
To its credit, the House committee recommended that North Carolina public schools increase their number of support staff to meet national standards. It’s a great but also expensive recommendation requiring legislators who deeply value public education and want to do right by all children. Former North Carolina General Assembly Fiscal Analyst and current Justice Center Senior Policy Analyst Kristopher Nordstrom puts the price tag for increasing instructional support staff ratios to recommended levels at $640 million. Unfortunately, this summer our General Assembly budgeted only $10 million for increasing mental health support personnel and made schools apply for grants in order to get those funds. That’s not a typo, our state lawmakers gave us 1.6% of what they acknowledged we need. The funds are non-recurring, meaning there is no guarantee those positions will be funded for more than one school year.
It’s not the first time our General Assembly has balked at paying for desperately-needed social-emotional student supports. In 2017, my own state representative John Autry noted Republicans were adding another $20 million to the private school voucher program despite the fact that existing voucher funds hadn’t been fully spent. Autry proposed an amendment which would have taken that $20 million and used it to hire additional public school personnel such as school counselors, nurses, and psychologists. That amendment was tabled by House leadership so they wouldn’t have to go on the record as voting against it.
Here in Mecklenburg County we’ve been fortunate to have the support of our local government to help fill the gaps for what the state refuses to do, but it’s still not nearly enough. Last school year our support services ratios in CMS schools were far worse than the state averages (our ratio of school psychologists was 1:2112, for example). Our school district asked for and received $4.4 million in additional funding from the county which will provide 10 psychologists, 33 school counselors, and 17 social workers. Those additional staff members will make a difference, but it’s a drop in the bucket in a district that serves nearly 150,000 children.
We have no way of knowing if counseling or peer mediation could have prevented the devastating events that took place at Butler this week. But as we struggle to turn this loss of life into meaningful action, let’s focus on what concrete steps we can take to help students develop the social and emotional well being we know they all need to be successful in school. Let’s break with the mentality that has us perpetually accepting as fact that public education is all about making do with less than we need and take bold steps on behalf of kids who need us now more than ever.