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More school cops could be right way to protect students

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Placing police officers in more of North Carolina’s public schools could be a positive step toward increasing school safety — if it’s done the right way.

The school safety committee formed by Gov. Roy Cooper after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last February has produced more than 30 recommendations, many of which are worth trying.

Unlike the state House’s committee on school safety, which released its report in December, the governor’s committee doesn’t ignore the controversial matter of tougher gun control. Legislators tend to avoid that hot-button issue, even if it’s obvious that mass shootings would be less likely if guns weren’t so readily available.

The governor’s committee rightly calls for legislation allowing gun violence protection orders, so that people can ask courts to remove guns temporarily from those who are a danger to themselves or others.

The committee’s recommendation were followed by several bills in the legislature, including an omnibus bill from Democrats that would require background checks for all gun sales, prohibit people under 21 from owning assault-style weapons and ban high-capacity magazines — all of which are likely to face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. GOP-sponsored school bills generally avoided gun control in favor of measures such as funding for mental-health screening and required safety drills.

But one recommendation from the governor’s committee that may gain broad support is the call to put an armed police officer in every school. About half the schools in the state — mostly high schools and middle schools — already have armed officers, or SROs. The report says that if the money can’t be found to add SROs in every school, there should at least be a push to put them in more elementary schools.

Not everyone agrees, however. Critics say that having police in schools results in more children winding up in court, and that minority children are disproportionately targeted.

That’s why it’s important to use armed police officers in schools the right way. An SRO is not supposed to deal with routine disciplinary problems. Teachers and trained administrators should continue to handle such matters, using law enforcement in extreme cases.

Ideally, SROs make schools more secure, but they also speak to classes and act as mentors and role models. The right SRO can help more students view law enforcement as a force for good, worthy of respect.

That’s why more SROs must be accompanied by more money for training — another of the recommendations. It’s also why it’s important to choose the right people to be SROs. Virginia is considering allowing retired police officers to work as SROs without losing retirement pay.

There are other recommendations worth considering in the report, including calls for more mental health personnel in schools. Schools need more social workers, psychologists, nurses and counselors need time to work with students rather than testing and paperwork.

SROs in more schools could be an important part of increased safety. The governor’s committee has at least one thing exactly right: We need to be proactive, to have the determination and the money to make schools safer now, not until after another deadly shooting.

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