New Hanover County Leaders Discuss Investments in School Safety in Private Meeting


After a shooting at New Hanover High, county leaders are considering ways to intervene in the community violence that is rampant in schools. (Photo from Port City Daily / Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Senior New Hanover County officials, school district staff and law enforcement officials met in a closed-door meeting on Friday to discuss campus safety improvements school.

Any investments that materialize would be funded by money from the sale of more than $ 1 billion of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center, which was once owned by the county. County commissioners voted unanimously on September 3 to allow the city manager to use an unspecified portion of the proceeds, up to $ 350 million, to avoid a situation similar to the non-fatal shooting that took place in New Hanover High School on August 30.

RELATED: NHC dedicates part of the funds from the sale of hospitals to preventing violence among young people

While few details are known about the motive for the shooting or altercation that erupted earlier, many local leaders see an increase in youth violence across the community. Law enforcement officials have noted an increase in the number of minors getting their hands on guns and suggested that the phenomenon is likely the result of students spending less time in school and more time on the streets during the pandemic.

In February, a miner was injured after 24 bullets were fired inside Ten Pin Alley Breaktime Billiards, the neighbor of the South College Road County Government Complex. The following month, seven youths were shot dead at a horrific house party on Kidder Street; three victims died, the youngest being 16 years old.

As Friday’s meeting was underway, Ashley High, Anderson Elementary and Murray Middle, all located in Veterans Park, were stranded due to threatening social media posts, according to a spokesperson for the New Hanover Sheriff’s Office. . Superintendent Dr Charles Foust said the closures were not a major disruption to the working session of stakeholders since protocols are in place and there is no need to issue orders.

Journalists were not allowed to attend the staff meeting, but were asked to interview County Director Chris Coudriet and Foust immediately after it ended.

Sheriff Ed McMahon was the only elected official to attend the meeting. Other attendees included the Deputy Chief Sheriff, the Chief Justice of the District Court, the Wilmington Police Chief, the City Manager, school mental health counselors, various county officials, principals and teachers from several schools and a parent.

While the overarching problem is identified as community violence, Coudriet explained that Friday’s meeting was specific to improving safety in school buildings.

“This is a larger community discussion and these are happening, but today we were talking about ‘What are we doing in our schools? “, Said Coudriet,” because our children spend the majority of their time in school, and that is where they need to be the safest and most secure on a daily basis.

The meeting was described as a flow of ideas that were ultimately reduced to six priorities, three of which involved material improvements and three of which were “people-centered”. Coudriet presents a more detailed overview at the meeting of the Council of Commissioners on Monday 20 September.

A physical improvement will likely involve studying the safety and facility audits already carried out and determining which investments still need funding and what the district could implement further, Coudriet said.

“I’m a parent too, so going through these buildings I want to make sure that. . . I can send my child to every building here and feel comfortable doing it, ”said Foust.

Physical changes to schools often lead to accusations of punishing students and creating prison-like environments. However, the metal detectors were shut down during the September 3 public meeting due to limitations and a lack of supporting research and were not discussed at all at Friday’s meeting, said Coudriet.

“I’m going to quote someone in the room – – ‘You can have nice facilities that are also designed to keep people safe and secure,” “Coudriet said.

Implemented by New Hanover High principal Phillip Sutton, a controversial clear school backpack policy is expected to take effect in October. The decision was widely contested by the public. Foust told reporters he was unsure if it would solve any problems, but did not give his opinion.

One of the concerns raised at the meeting, Coudriet shared, is about the multiple entry points on most high school campuses. Given its sprawling downtown location spanning Market Street, New Hanover High has dozens of entrances and is considered vulnerable to outside threats.

“How do we look at it from an inward perimeter for security?” That people who don’t belong to a campus don’t go to a campus, but also that there is a way to move children off campus safely and efficiently when needed, ”Coudriet said.

After the New Hanover High School shooting, the students were escorted several blocks to Williston Middle and were eventually taken home by bus or picked up by parents as part of a messy reunification operation. County leaders then emailed each other media reports on the effort, calling for improved plans for the future.

“People-centered” improvements involve improving support for parents and connecting families to resources, the county director revealed.

Foust said his top priority to return to the office was to participate in more conversations about the agencies available to support families and students.

“We’re not doing a very good job of coordinating this service delivery either,” Coudriet said.

At this point, it is not yet clear how much money will be spent on the $ 350 million pot. Coudriet said participants in these discussions are urged to ignore finances and focus on identifying the root cause of the problems.

“We can only budget when we know clearly what the problems may be,” Coudriet said. “We probably misdiagnosed a lot of issues. We need to move past the things that didn’t work, identify what we think will work, and then put in place a budget that helps implement the change our community wants, needs and deserves.

There is also no timeline for when the money will be spent. While leaders want to act thoughtfully, Coudriet said there is a demand from the community and commissioners for accelerated action.

The county plans to hold forums for the public to give their opinion on how best to use the funds for the safety of the community. The invitation list for Friday was limited.

No member of the education council was present; the board was receiving training from the North Carolina School Boards Association and the superintendent’s assessment process while the school safety meeting was underway. Member Stephanie Walker said on a call she was disappointed to be excluded from the discussion and hoped to be included in the future.

“I have a feeling that we are an elected body and that we are elected every two years based on what the public thinks about certain issues, and I would like to think that we will know a lot about it. [the issues]”said Walker.

School board member Judy Justice also expressed frustration. She said at least a few board members should have been present at the meeting: “At least three of us have a lot of experience in public school, even here locally, and we were involved, of course. , daily involved in what is happening. in schools, we would therefore have contributed a lot.

There were also no representatives of nonprofit organizations interacting in communities facing the highest rates of violence.

“What I would ask the community, however, is to respect the fact that a lot of these improvements do not come from appointed officials, like me, or elected officials,” Coudriet said. “They come from people who live in our community and maybe don’t want to participate in these discussions with a camera in their face or 500 people in an audience that is listening or maybe even, sadly, passing judgment. “

Thanks to the initial motion for these funds, the county manager got permission to dip into the $ 350 million. However, in order to spend certain amounts of taxpayer money, the county must follow policies and laws that often require board approval or public tendering processes.

Coudriet assured that elected officials will understand what is proposed before the money is spent.

“It’s ultimately community money, so we haven’t lost sight of that,” Coudriet said. “We will be open and transparent and very clear with everyone what we are doing, why we are proposing to do it and what the timeline is and what we think is the return on investment.”

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