The newly formed North Carolina General Assembly House Select Committee on School Safety — of which Lincoln County state Rep. Jason Saine is a member — has been split into two subcommittees, with one focusing on mental health and the other examining physical safety and security. 

The committee was formed last month in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day. On that day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle and murdered 17 people, while wounding 17 others, despite numerous tips to the local sheriff’s office in 2016 and 2017 about Cruz’s threats to carry out a school shooting. 

Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, is a member of the physical safety and security subcommittee that is scheduled to meet next week. Over the past month, Saine and two other members, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, have been looking into better training opportunities for school resource officers. 

“One of the things that I’ve been tasked with is looking at training for our school resource officers and the possibility of designating a greater level of expertise, such as more requirements and more training, for our SROs so that it maybe becomes a more prestigious position within law enforcement,” Saine said. “I think that they need special training because they are dealing with special situations in schools and trying to assess those dangers. We need to make sure that SROs are doing a lot of continuing education so that it’s not a retirement position like we’ve been hearing it has become in some counties.”

Saine, along with state Rep. Destin Hall and state Rep. Jay Adams, recently participated in a school shooter active training exercise with live ammunition in Caldwell County. 

“It was a very realistic situation with live ammo and the reason that we did that was trying to understand what training is involved for law enforcement, so we were able to get a little taste of it,” Saine said. “I was fired at and the way it works is there’s a mirror technology. In one of the trainings we were in a classroom where a student was reaching for a gun and we had to figure out how to respond. The benefit to us was getting a taste of the split-second decisions that have to be made when there is an active shooter situation. We’re nowhere near experts, or ready to join the force, but it did give us a unique perspective and understanding of some of the training that might be involved for our officers.” 

The mental health subcommittee met on Monday and ultimately adopted a report recommending that the state hire more counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers to address the emotional needs of North Carolina students. The committee didn’t address the funding needed to hire the additional personnel, although Gov. Roy Cooper revealed a $130 million school safety plan last week that he plans to include in his upcoming budget proposal. Cooper’s plan includes $40 million set aside to hire those recommended staff members. 

The subcommittee is also recommending legislation that would require every middle school and high school to implement peer-to-peer counseling programs. In addition, the subcommittee would like the legislature to explore the expansion of a mobile phone app that allows students to report threats and abuse anonymously to authorities. 

“Some of the things that we’ve seen from past acts of violence, and particularly shooting violence, is that there have been mental health indicators all along the way,” Saine said. “One of the things that we want to focus on is having the right training to identify potential problems. It doesn’t stop there though because in a lot of these situations those problems had been identified and no one seems surprised when that person then acts. The question is at what point do authorities engage and intercede rather than just letting them continue on a path when we know where they’re likely to end up. It’s not just the assessment part of it, but we have to make sure there’s treatment that can either help rectify the situation, or at least take them out of the student population. That’s one of the challenges we’re facing.”

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