NEW HANOVER COUNTY—When adults are making decisions that impact your daily life, it can be tough to find a voice.
Local leaders chime in, administrators enforce policy and board members make decisions. Now, it’s the students’ turn to talk.
At the spring Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council meeting Friday, students had the chance to air their grievances to the Student Support Services staff, Superintendent Tim Markley, Deputy Superintendent Rick Holliday and a few school board members.
With mass school shootings in the national spotlight, walkouts this week and numerous threats made by students in recent weeks, students in New Hanover County are burdened with confronting crisis situations.
“I feel like our school is not safe at all in the case of a crisis, period,” Demi Edwards said.
As a junior at Isaac Bear Early College, Edwards said her school is ill-equipped to handle a crisis.
“The only way out is the windows,” she said. “I am tired of having to be in a crowded hallway 24/7,” she said.
Isaac Bear Early College opened 11 years ago and still operates out of the same trailers in which it hosted its inaugural class.
Samantha Kline, an Isaac Bear sophomore, described an environment in which half the school eats lunch outside on the ground. She said a new building is long overdue.
“It’s not a good environment regardless of the safety of it,” Kline said. “It makes you feel like nobody cares about your school.”
No mention was made of former teacher Michael Earl Kelly, Last month, Kelly, an Isaac Bear teacher since its inception, was charged with at least 14 counts of indecent liberties with a minor, all of whom appeared to be students. He was a 26-year veteran of the school district in total.
Henry Escalante, a Mosley Performance Learning Center sophomore, asked for strengthened law enforcement intervention. He has witnessed weapons while sharing a public school bus with New Hanover High School students.
“There’s people that hide knives in their backpack,” Escalante said.
Some students said hiring additional school resource officers (SRO) officers to campus could ease safety concerns, but deputy superintendent Holliday assured students they would be protected in a time of a crisis.
“Our SRO force in New Hanover County is larger than the average police force in North Carolina,” Holliday said. “We have a huge SRO force.”
Though the schools’ can provide a framework for crisis-management, Holliday said everyone should consider developing a personal plan.
Bias in counseling
Safety was not the only concern for students. Some said they don’t always have complete control over the courses they are able to enroll in.
Criniti McCain, a senior at John T. Hoggard High School, said she has been steered away from signing up for a construction course.
“I feel like it’s biased,” McCain said.
Along with her other female friends, McCain was told the construction course was reserved for underclassmen, but later learned it “had nothing but sophomore males.”
A New Hanover High School student shared McCain’s belief.
“I do have to agree that it is biased,” Karl Ricanek said. Ricanek is a senior and will attend an Ivy League institution in the fall, but still, believed he hit unnecessary roadblocks in earning Advanced Placement credits.
“They put certain restrictions on certain classes,” Ricanek said.
Whether the perceived bias is intentional or not, the counselor’s caseloads are not ideal.
“Our counselors just don’t have the time to do their full job,” Ryan Dixon said, a senior at Elmsey A. Laney High School.
Dixon wanted more time to go over course changes in a meeting with his counselor but ran out of time before the two could engage in a meaningful conversation.
“Our counselors are really scattered,” Sanya Shah said, a senior Hoggard student and Morehead-Cain Scholarship recipient.
“Our counselors, you’re right, they are swamped. The national recommendation is 1 for every 250 students and I will tell you we don’t have that ratio in our schools,” Markley said.
Three years ago, Markley developed this student council to learn more about the students’ perspective. Each year, he asks principals of the county’s high schools and early colleges to nominate leaders to represent a cross-section of the student population.
Those students arrive ready with ideas and concerns garnered from their peers.
The selected council meets once per quarter and helps inform Markley and other leaders what to prioritize. As a result of these meetings, NHCS has hired four half-time Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) counselors, has implemented athletics in early colleges and made other “subtle changes,” Markley said.
Markley said one advantage of the meetings is to allow elected board members to connect to students who are ultimately affected by their decisions.
Though many comments were made out of apparent fear or frustration, board member Bruce Shell said he was glad students felt comfortable using the platform the Student Advisory Council provides.
“The frustration level is so high with these young people,” Shell said. “You can’t suppress it or it’s going to come out somewhere else.”
Johanna Ferebee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @j__ferebee on Twitter