Offenses for drug possession rising in North Carolina schools as reporting systems expand, new data shows

School crime rates, after largely declining for the past decade, have risen since the pandemic. At the same time, the state has drastically increased anonymous tip systems that allow people to report concerns about student or adult behavior in school.
Posted 2024-01-31T15:55:11+00:00 - Updated 2024-02-06T21:25:00+00:00
Drugs a growing problem in NC schools since COVID

Criminal offenses for drug possession have risen 54.8% in North Carolina schools since before the pandemic, data released Wednesday show, and officials say that may be the result of expanded monitoring of student behavior.

School crime rates, after largely declining for the past decade, have risen since the pandemic. At the same time, the state has drastically increased anonymous tip systems that allow people to report concerns about student or adult behavior in school.

On Wednesday, after the new data were presented to the State Board of Education, state officials discussed concerns for worsening student well-being and connecting students to more health services when they’re in crisis.

“Behavioral health is essential to health,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley told the board. While it’s been underfunded for years, North Carolina’s newly expanded Medicaid includes an influx of one-time money to help, he said. DHHS is funding mental health first aid training to recognize when kids are in crisis. It’s operating mobile crisis units that can come to schools, and it plans to spend money on increased community and school-based mental health services for children.

More than two-thirds of the rise in crimes since the pandemic is attributable to possession of a controlled substance.

Most of the remaining increase is attributable to possession of a non-firearm weapon. However, offenses of non-firearm weapon possession went down slightly from 2021-22 to 2022-23 after the initial post-pandemic rise, from 3,292 during the 2021-22 school year to 3,171 during the 2022-23 school year. But offenses for possession of a controlled substance jumped up even more, rising 35.7%, or 5,250 offenses in 2021-22 to 7,125 offenses during the 2022-23 school year.

The data doesn't break down the type of controlled substances students were found with.

Criminal offenses in schools have generally been decreasing over at least the past 15 years. The 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years are an exception.

It’s unclear whether the rise in school resource officers — easily available on campus to address concerns — has contributed to deterring crime or to increasing the likelihood someone is reported for a crime.

Schools have also expanded their anonymous tip systems, particularly since the state adopted the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System in 2019. Those tip systems have captured thousands of tips for drug possession since then, including hundreds in just the first few months of this school year.

“Part of the increase is that now there is a mechanism to identify these things,” said Karen Fairley, director of the Center for Safer Schools at the Department of Public Instruction. Fairley reported the crime data to the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

The department doesn’t publish data showing how many tips resulted in actually finding drugs.

Still, Fairley said she wants to expand training for students and staff on preventative measures and ensure social workers are available for every school to provide or plan for behavior intervention. She’s traveling the state to gather feedback from schools on what they need to improve school climate.

The numbers in school reflect larger community trends, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis said Wednesday.

Fairley agreed.

“What goes on in our communities trickles over in our schools and vice versa,” she said. The Center for Safer Schools created a parent engagement team to discuss issues on the ground. Parents are critical partners in checking in with their children and making sure they know what’s going on in school. That can include making sure they know what things their child is bringing to school.

Kinsley noted that North Carolina is often viewed as a great place to start and run a business. At the same time, it does relatively poorly on many mental health care metrics, such as access to care, he said. That’s a stark contrast, he said, and doesn’t bode well for staying at the top of lists for best places to start a business.

“At some point… it’s going to snap back, because we’re not investing in the health and wellness of students” and the workforce, Kinsley said.

Access to health services at school can make a difference, said Sarah Komisarow, assistant professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

Research shows school-based telemedicine reduces absences among students. Researchers found some, but less strong, correlations with reducing disciplinary actions related to violence or weapons.

Superintendent Catherine Truitt said school leaders should look at how school personnel can be involved in mobile crisis centers but urged schools to be “partners” rather than the ones shouldering the responsibility of mental health care for students.

“For too long, we have expected our classroom teachers to be fully prepared to deal with these mental health issues in a way that they are not prepared,” Truitt said.

Concern for school and student safety is high, after reports across the nation of school shootings and bomb threats called into schools rise. Data shows serous assaults on campus are rare and deaths even rarer, though they do occur. A high school student in Wake County died in November after police say a fellow student stabbed him during a fight at school.

The number of weapon possession offenses has risen post-pandemic but remains well below what it was every year prior to the 2013-14 school year. Weapons can include knives kids might bring, believing they need to protect themselves from a bully, Fairley said. They can also include razor blades some students may use to self-harm, as mental health concerns rise among children.

The data reported Wednesday are for “reportable criminal offenses.” The data are reported by schools, not law enforcement, and don’t reflect findings of guilt in a court of law.

Schools and the Center for Safer Schools use the data to figure out what problems schools have and where they should focus their efforts to improve safety. The Center also uses the data to plan training services every summer.

A separate dataset of student discipline showed an increase in short-term suspensions of students, though long-term suspensions remained flat. Student discipline tends to be disproportionately handed down to students of color and students with disabilities — a reality critics argue reflects bias against those students.