Reflecting similar trends across the nation, North Carolina public schools reported increases during the 2021-22 school year of incidents involving student misconduct, crime and violence.
Even as schools reopened after the historic disruptions of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, many students returned to in-person learning facing academic and social challenges after a year of remote instruction, relative isolation and limited face-to-face interactions with peers and educators. National survey data from schools last year showed that many students struggled to readjust to school culture and expectations, resulting in more misbehavior and violations of school rules and laws.
The survey from the U.S. Department of Education found that 84% of a representative sample of public schools either agreed or strongly agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted the behavioral development of their students; 87% of schools agreed or strongly agreed that the pandemic negatively impacted the socioemotional development of their students.
Data included in North Carolina’s annual Consolidated Data Report to the General Assembly, presented today to the State Board of Education, shows an overall increase in crime and violence during the 2021-22 school year when compared to years immediately preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consequently, disciplinary actions also increased in terms of both short- and long-term suspensions as well as expulsions. The state’s high school dropout rate also edged up from pre-pandemic levels after a decline during the two years of the pandemic, 2019-20 and 2020-21.
While several serious, low-incidence categories of crime and violence showed declines – including sexual assault, sexual offense and assault resulting in serious injury-- three higher offenses and crimes increased, according to the report. Possession of controlled substances was up 14% in 2021-22 compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2018-19; possession of a weapon (not including firearms or powerful explosives) jumped 60% from 2018-19 (30% from 2017-18); and while fewer in number, possession of a firearm or powerful explosive increased 30% from 2018-19.
Among high school students, a total of 5,991 acts of crime and violence were reported during the 2021-22 school year, compared to 4,850 reported for the 2018-19 school year. The rate of crime and violence per 1,000 students increased from 10.73 to 13.16 across the same time span.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said the data underscores the need for the most effective measures to keep students and schools safe while doing everything possible to support the well-being of students with strong mental health services.
“We know that the pandemic and its aftermath have created significant challenges for students, educators and their schools,” Truitt said. “We’re taking aggressive steps to respond this year, and we’re seeking more resources for next year to provide students with the help that they need.” Truitt pointed to $74.1 million in School Safety Grants that the Center for Safer Schools awarded this past fall to 200 school districts and charters. The funding is being used for safety equipment, school resource officers, training and services for students in crisis in elementary, middle and charter schools across the state.
An additional effort, she said, is being supported by a $17 million federal grant to NCDPI to help 15 school districts increase the number and diversity of mental health service providers in high-needs schools. Continuing through 2027, the grants will help the state improve the availability of school-based mental health service providers, including school counselors, school social workers and school mental health clinicians.
For the 2023-24 school year, Truitt and the State Board of Education are asking the General Assembly for $100 million to ensure that public schools in disadvantaged communities have the resources to recruit and retain qualified nurses.
The Consolidated Data Report and associated data also showed that while consistent with pre-pandemic trends, racial minorities, low-income students and males were more likely to face disciplinary actions as short- or long-term suspensions or placements in alternative schools for disciplinary reasons. The largest reported increase from the 2018-19 school year was the rate of long-term suspensions among Black students, which was 85 per 100,000 students in 2018-19 and 103 per 100,000 students in 2021-22.
Karen Fairley, executive director of the Center for Safer Schools, said that ongoing efforts to improve school climate and culture are key to reducing instances of crime and violence as well as resulting disciplinary actions that can fall disproportionately on minority students.
“Our schools need to be safe and supportive for all students,” Fairley said, “and that requires engagement of everyone in schools: students, parents, educators and support staff. Effective engagement is something the Center for Safer Schools will address in the coming months.”
In her report to the State Board, Fairley outlined several recommendations aimed at improving school climate and culture. Among them:
- Recognize cultural differences in students served.
- Provide support for parents and guardians to increase protective factors such as ensuring social connections and strengthening knowledge of parenting and child development.
- Employ a social worker at each school (elementary, middle and high) to focus on prevention, intervention and referral.
- Employ qualified professionals to offer cultural awareness training to school staff and employees.
- Offer trauma-informed care training to school staff and employees.
- Ensure that school resource officers are engaged in positive interactions with students, not just classroom behavior management and situations of arrest or other punitive measures.