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Say Something has fielded 254 tips about NC school attack plans this year, official says

Rick Parker Say Something.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
East Mecklenburg High School Principal Rick Parker displays a poster used to remind students about the Say Something anonymous reporting system.

The week after an 18-year-old shooter killed 21 people at a Texas elementary school, the head of North Carolina’s Center for Safer Schools updated the House Education Committee on school safety measures.

Karen Fairley said the center started urging North Carolina schools to sign up for the Say Something anonymous reporting program, run by Sandy Hook Promise, in November 2019. It connects students with a crisis call center that's available at all hours, with staff trained to screen reports of bullying, self harm, weapons and plans to harm others.

With 98 of 115 school districts participating, along with 145 charter schools, Say Something fielded more than 400 tips about planned school attacks this school year, Fairley said. Of those, 254 were deemed life safety issues, which means they involved "clear, convincing evidence" of an imminent threat, she said.

Fairley did not provide further details about those threats or how officials responded.

State Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, who chairs the education committee, said those tips show "we're doing our job."

"We will continue to do our job and continue to focus on maintaining safety and security for the people of North Carolina through their school system," he said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched Say Something in February, after a first semester that saw a record number of guns in schools.

Threat assessment training

North Carolina's Center for Safer School was created in 2013, after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Fairley said the center collects data and administers grants to help schools improve safety.

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Karen Fairley, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools, addresses the House Education Committee on Wednesday.

Those efforts have included hiring more school resource officers and supporting active shooter training. She said the center has recently focused on mental health support and training school staff in threat assessment to identify behavior that could signal that students pose a threat to themselves or others.

"For them to run, hide, fight, we can get to all of that," she said, referring to responses to active shooters. "But what we really need to work on is the things before we get to that point. And that’s where the behavioral threat assessments come in. This is where mental health first aid comes in."

Fairley noted that there have been concerns that Black and Hispanic youth could be disproportionately identified as threatening. She noted that she's a Black mother and grandmother and will be on the lookout for anything like that.

Torbett also emphasized the need for mental health support for students. He said some safety strategies may emphasize "hardening of targets," or relying on technology that can keep shooters out of schools or classrooms.

"But also what I personally feel is the most critical of all issues (is) the mental health of our kids," he said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.