RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — 21 percent. That’s how much juvenile violent crime has increased in North Carolina in just one year.

On Wednesday, the state Task Force for Safer Schools met to figure out ways to combat the guns, gangs and drugs on school campuses and out on the streets. 

Officials told CBS 17 their two priorities are simple: keeping the guns from getting into the hands of kids and teens and working on the growing mental health problems that were not handled during the height of the pandemic.

“It’s a very disturbing statistic. 44 percent of the kids that are coming into the system believe the only way that they can get what they need in life is through violence. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said William Lassiter, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Public Safety over Juvenile Justice.

Lassiter believes focusing on mental health is crucial, especially when it comes to tackling the growing violence issues involving North Carolina teens in and out of school.

“We’re seeing a generational change with this group of young people, because of the pandemic and the social isolation that they experienced for a year and a half,” explained Lassiter. “I think if we double down, and if you look at the governor’s budget, he included in his budget more social workers, more counselors, more school psychology.”

But those resources will only help if the kids and teens are not able to get their hands on any weapons. And that’s not so easy to do.

“One of the things that we’ve seen is that gangs are using young people to try and go and get guns as an initiation tactic. And what they’re doing is they’re actually walking around in parking lots and trying to pop handles on cars that are unlocked and looking for that unsecured firearm,” added Lassiter. 

Those guns are sometimes brought to school, prompting some of the numerous lockdowns in Wake and Durham counties over the past couple of months.

They’re also used to harm others.

“It’s tragic. These are preventable incidents,” said Lassiter.

He said in 2019, four percent of juvenile arrests were for violent crimes. In 2022, that number nearly doubled to over seven percent.

“My hope is that this is a one-year trend and that now that we’re drawing attention to it, that people are seeing the numbers, that we can take the steps that we need right now to prevent this from growing into an epidemic,” said Lassiter.