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Fact Check: Is GOP superintendent candidate right on claims about school safety?

Michele Morrow.
Michele Morrow 4 NC
Campaign website
Michele Morrow.

It’s time for a fact-check of North Carolina politics. Today, we are looking at three separate claims related to school safety that Michele Morrow made during a recent event in Cary. Morrow is the Republican nominee for state education superintendent and faces Democrat Mo Green in November. Joining WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry to fact-check the claims is Paul Specht of WRAL.

Marshall Terry: So here is the first claim you looked at. Morrow said: “Last year alone, more than 1,500 teachers were assaulted on the job in North Carolina. And we have to ask ourselves, why are teachers leaving teaching?” Is she right, Paul?

Paul Specht: Well, she's about right. And to check all of her claims, we looked at a report that was compiled by the state Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction and their report for the 2022-2023 school year, which is the most recent data. It found 14,182 cases of assault on school personnel. So, not exactly 1,500, just below that, about right. You know, and not teachers all of them necessarily. This could have been other school staff or principals, or whatever. But she's, you know, on track there.

And then her claim about suggesting why teachers are leaving. We wanted to address that, too, because the state does track teacher turnover. and it is at a 20-year high. But in exit surveys, North Carolina doesn't include questions about needing more pay or needing more support, or things like that, so we don't know exactly the reasons for the turnover rate being as high as it is.

So assaults could be a reason why, school violence could be a reason why, but there's not a direct link that we can find on paper, at least, between aggression towards school personnel and then teachers leaving the classroom.

Terry: OK, so later, Morrow said, quote, "Did you know that in the last five years, the reports of crime and violence inside of our school buildings has gone up 84%? There was more than 13,000 cases of crimes and violence that have been reported in the last year." What can you tell us about that one, Paul?

Specht: Well, she gets the number right. There were 13,000 acts of crime and violence in the 2022-2023 school year — 13,193 to be exact. The 84% number, I'm not quite sure where she was getting that.

The 13,000 figure is actually a 38% increase from five years ago, or the 2018-2019 school year, if we're going to rate that, which we didn't. We didn't put these claims through the truth immunity that that would be, sort of, "half true."

It's important to point out, too, that crime and violence is lumped together in this report. As one category, drug possession accounted for about 54% of those cases. And weapon possession — that could be guns, knives, whatever — accounted for another 24%. So, you know, over close to 75% of all these acts of, quote, "crime and violence" as a category were drug or weapon possession.

Terry: Finally, Morrow referred to cases in Charlotte, where school officials have come under fire for how they've handled rape and sexual assault cases.

She said the federal government incentivizes schools to keep students in the classroom and, added, "The reason why that's happening, is that the federal government is demanding that we are lessening the number of suspensions and expulsions. They want the numbers to look good so the parents think everything is fine." So, what does she mean by that?

Specht: There's a lot in that one quote. We broke it down into three different topics to address. The first being federal funding. Her campaign manager sent us a link to an article about a 2014 memo from the Obama administration advising school superintendents that racial disparities and suspension rates could lead to a loss of federal funding. Trump repealed that policy, the Biden administration issued its own guidance and it didn't exactly fully resurrect the Obama-era policy. So there is a not-so-distant history of the federal government conditioning its funds and linking it to suspensions.

But the people I spoke to said that's not really what's at play here and how disciplinary decisions are made. Each local school district looks at a student's case. The case-by-case basis, the Department of Public Instruction spokesperson said, it's really hard to make that leap and suggest that local officials are making determinations on a child's future based on federal funding.

And then as far as suspensions go, obviously Morrow's quote might lead some to believe that students aren't being removed from the classroom when they should be, or maybe suspensions or expulsions are down. She didn't come out and say that, but some might have come away with that impression. And suspensions and expulsions were actually up in the 2022-2023 school year. So, all in all, that sort of big, sweeping claim there at the end, just needed some more context.

Terry: How important is the issue of school safety in the race for state superintendent, and has Mo Green talked about it?

Specht: I would say it's important because both sides of the aisle are concerned about safety, you know. Michele Morrow has talked about, obviously, students being returned to the classroom despite having maybe being charged with a crime or had exceedingly bad behavior.

Then on the other side, you know, Democrats across the nation have spoken out in favor of more gun control, saying, you know, other ways to keep the classroom safe because of the school shooters that there have been.

So I would say it's front and center in this race, especially coming from Mo Green. He says that he wants to take a more comprehensive approach to improving school safety. I'm reading here from a WRAL story on both candidates and their platforms as in terms of school safety. And he wants to have more social workers and more counselors in schools to help students who are struggling and things like that. He also wants to insert character development education as part of his plan.

So two candidates here talking about the same issue, but even different things under that umbrella, if you will. And I suspect voters will hear a lot more from both Green and Morrow in the months ahead.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.