RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina public schools reported increases during the 2021-22 school year of incidents involving student misconduct, crime and violence, according to a report presented by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The Consolidated Data Report showed an increase in crime and violence during that school year when compared to years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increase reflects similar trends across the U.S., the department said.

As a consequence, disciplinary actions also increased in terms of both short- and long-term suspensions as well as expulsions.

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 percent in 2021-22 compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2018-19;
  • Possession of a weapon (not including firearms or powerful explosives) jumped by 60 percent from 2018-19 (30 percent from 2017-18); and
  • Possession of a firearm or powerful explosive increased by 30 percent 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.

The state’s high school dropout rate also spiked from pre-pandemic levels after a decline during the two years of the pandemic, 2019-20 and 2020-21.

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.

Truitt said a $17 million federal grant to NCDPI will be used to help 15 school districts increase the number and diversity of mental health service providers in high-needs schools.

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, the NCDPI said.

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 of Education, Fairley outlined several recommendations aimed at improving school climate and culture:

  • 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;
  • Hire 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 and
  • 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.