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Senator Thom Tillis visits Wilmington to tout bipartisan Safer Communities Act

From left: State Senator Michael Lee (R), U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R), State Superintendent Catherine Truitt (R), and New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust.
From left: State Senator Michael Lee (R), U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R), State Superintendent Catherine Truitt (R), and New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust.

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis was in Wilmington Monday to discuss the bipartisan safer communities act with local stakeholders. Details on how funding will actually be utilized are scarce, but Tillis and other stakeholders highlighted issues like school-based student mental health, hardening schools, and developing a mental-health professional pipeline.

Senator Tillis convened the round table with a host of local stakeholders, including Superintendent Catherine Truitt, State Senator Michael Lee, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Rivenbark, New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Charles Foust, Ryan Estes from Coastal Horizons, and Dr. Roxie Wells from Novant Health. Sheriff Ed McMahon was invited but was unable to attend.

The event was pitched as both an information and pitching session. While stakeholders largely agreed that student mental health — and, as a result, student behavior — was a major issue, exacerbated deeply by the pandemic, there were no details yet on how, exactly the funding would hit the ground. Truitt noted the state is already considering how to use the money on a range of issues, including more mental health professionals in the schools with the most need, but also for projects like 'hardening,' (things like armored vestibules, metal detectors, fencing and gates, and other infrastructure used to protect schools). Other funding streams could include support for School Resource Officers — as well as beefing up the educational pipeline to recruit, train, and retain counselors, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

Speaking with the press following the roundtable, Tillis said the bill, passed last summer, was the long-deferred fulfillment of federal promises to fund more mental health services.

“You have to keep in mind back in the late 60s, the federal government promised that they would shut down the warehousing of people with behavioral health problems, they did that. They also made a promise that they were going to make more behavioral health services available. They didn't do that," he said.

As state and local officials are still discussing how, exactly, they will appropriate their portion of the $12 billion bill, Tillis acknowledged that, despite that significant funding, the act can’t address every problem.

Programs like the $500-million school-based mental health grant are aimed at providing a decade of financial support for additional mental health personnel. That's significant funding, but it can only reach a fraction of the nearly 100,000 public schools nationwide (it would provide less than $6,000 per school for one year if spent all in one year, less than $600 per school is spent over ten). Tillis said those grants would be competitive, prioritizing schools with "great need" over schools that submitted "great applications."

“That's why the prioritizations, right, let's make sure as we're implementing this, they're in the areas that are of the greatest need, because you're going to document the results that builds a case for funding and just continuing to go back. Nothing's funded perpetually this year. So you're always having to go back, but the programs that have the best chance of future funding are the programs that are actually proving that they're solving the problem," Tillis said, adding that future funding could also come from the federal government, but it would likely need to come from state and local government as well.

Tillis, who was recently censured by the North Carolina GOP, defended the bill against conservatives, both in DC and Raleigh, saying critics don’t understand the parts of the bill they’re against — in particular he rejected claims that the bill instituted a federal Red Flag law.