House Democrats think private schools should play by same rules as public schools if students receive vouchers

If a private school receives state money, is that school obligated to abide by state laws?

That’s the question State Rep. Shelly Willingham, (D-Edgecombe) posed Monday during a discussion about a school safety omnibus bill that would, among other things, require public schools to create threat assessment teams.

Senate Bill 5 was previously a school construction bill, but was no longer needed after lawmakers added school construction and renovation money into the proposed conference budget.

So, lawmakers paced SB 5 with language from House Bill 76, which contained new safety requirements for North Carolina’s public schools.

Willingham took issue with the fact that the bill only “encourages” private church schools and religious charter schools to create school safety plans. Traditional charter schools, which are public schools, would be required to follow the law.

“If we provide funding to private schools and [religious] charters, could that be tied to required them to do this?” Willingham asked during a meeting of the Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House Committee.

Willingham’s question centers on the millions of dollars in school vouchers the state gives family each year under the Opportunity Scholarship Program so their children can attend private schools.

In May, the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, the agency which oversees the voucher program, reported that $37.7 million in vouchers had been issued this year to 9,640 recipients.

“Since we give money, no matter for what reason, if it’s a scholarship or a donation, can we put the same stipulation for safety to them as we do the other schools?” Willingham asked.

State Rep. Donna McDowell White, (R-Johnston), said an expert from fiscal management told the House K-12 Committee that private schools do not have to adhere to such laws or policies because vouchers are attached to students, not schools.

“We tried to put an amendment in that would do exactly what you’re asking, but we were advised in committee meeting that we could not do that because the money is attached to the child who has chosen to use that private school,” White said. “The private did not choose to use that child’s money, so they still have that autonomy.”

White said the current reality does not mean the state can’t continue to pursue options that would require private schools who receive state money to abide by the law in the future.

White’s answer didn’t satisfy Willingham.

“They’re still our students, even though they’re going to a private school, and should have the same protection as students going to a public school,” Willingham said. “I don’t see where that would make any difference whether it’s going to the student of to the child.”

Committee chairman State Rep. David Lewis, (R-Harnett), said he’s also concerned about the safety of children attending private schools, but prefers to not use a “carrot and stick approach” to force private schools to adhere to the provisions in the bill if they become law.

“If was up to almost anybody in this room, anything we could do to ensure the safety of our children, no matter what type of school they attend, we would do,” Lewis said. “We just have to walk a little bit differently with our private institutions.”

State Rep. Yvonne Holley, (D-Wake), wanted to know who would assume liability for harm to voucher students in the event of a safety breach.

“Is the public school system liable because they gave funding to the private school or is the private school responsible if something happened to the child at the school and a lawsuit occurred, who would be responsible?” Holley asked.

A staff member responded that liability would rest with the private school.

Holley said in an interview that the state should “make all schools” adhere to provisions in SB 5.

In addition to requiring public schools adhere to proposed safety requirements and encouraging private schools to do so, the bill also:

  • Clarifies the powers and duties of the Center for Safer Schools.
  • Requires reporting on the operational status of all public schools during states of emergency.
  • Requires annual vulnerability assessments for each public school building.
  • Defines the term “school resource officer” (SRO) and requires training for SROs.

The bill received a favorable report.

State Rep. Amos Quick, (D-Guilford), asked Robert “Bo” Trumbo, the new director of the Center for Safer Schools, to ensure “youth development” is part of the training for school resources officers.

“Adolescents and pre-adolescents go through changes and sometimes they are charged with crimes that are direct result of the fact that they are going through changes, this is boys and girls,” Quick said. It’s very important that SROs understand children are going through things and sometimes their behavior is not a federal case or even a misdemeanor, it’s just simply the result of a child being a child.”

Trumbo attended Monday’s committee meeting to answer questions about the bill and to introduce himself to lawmakers.

He said it’s “good to be a parent” who’s seen the various changes children go through before reaching adulthood.

A former special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, Trumbo said his professional experiences around mental health issues should also prove valuable.

“Not all of them need to be committed, not all of them need to be arrested,” Trumbo said. “Some of them need an arm around them and somebody to talk to and that’s where these threat assessment teams [come into play]. The goal of that is to establish those as well so [students] can be reached at the ground level before they start manifesting ideas to do something we don’t want them to do.”

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