RALEIGH, N.C. — In the wake of last month's school massacre in Newtown, Conn., state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson says North Carolina's schools are among the safest places children can be but that school leaders need to continue being vigilant.
"School safety is our No. 1 priority. We want to make sure that our students feel safe and that parents feel good about sending students to school," Atkinson said Friday. "We will continue our work with school districts about making sure that all of our schools are as safe as can be."
Atkinson plans to meet with district superintendents later this month to look at what the state's 2,500 schools are doing to keep children safe and to talk about ways to improve upon that.
"I believe that we can look toward other solutions that would have a greater impact in making sure our schools are safe," she said. "We have to be proactive when it comes to bullying. We have to be proactive in helping students be able to resolve problems in civil ways, and we need to make sure we have facilities that lend themselves to safety."
The State Board of Education and legislation already require schools to have in place safety plans and other measures put in place after the 1999 high school shootings in Columbine, Colo.
For example, every school has lockdown drills, and principals have what's called Critical Incident Response Kits that contain vital information for emergency responders.
One of the most noticeable safety measures in schools are school resource officers – currently, about 55 percent of funding for these officers comes from the state.
The state is working on an updated look at the number of officers in schools, but according to the most recent data, from 2008-2009, a majority of high and middle schools had their own officer. Only 1 percent of elementary schools had a campus officer, and one in five shared an officer with another school.
There are also guidelines for making sure schools are built for maximum safety. They include controlled access to buildings, road and sidewalk configuration and the use landscape as a means of protection.
Atkinson concedes aging schools pose a problem, because they were designed decades ago to promote collaboration.
Many districts also use trailers, which she says, make it difficult to maintain "optimal safety."
"When you look at safety, having multiple buildings makes it much more difficult," Atkinson said.
But because of costs associated with the designs, it's up to school districts as to whether to follow them.
School safety data provided to the state board Thursday showed the total number of reported acts of crime and violence decreased 4 percent.
More than half of the reported crimes involved possession of drugs or alcohol on campus. Nearly one-third of the reported crimes involved weapons possession. There were 1,212 reported assaults on school employees last school year, the report said. Sexual assaults excluding rape rounded out the top five campus crimes, with 187 cases reported statewide.