Thursday, August 18, 2022

Legislators visit Wilmington to talk school safety, here’s a breakdown of the latest efforts

Legislators and school officials are trying to work out what initiatives have been effective, and where funds should be allocated to improve student safety.

Representative Craig Horn (left) sits next to Representatives Larry Strickland and Frank Iler at the House Select Committee meeting in Wilmington Friday. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Representative Craig Horn (left) sits next to Representatives Larry Strickland and Frank Iler at the House Select Committee meeting in Wilmington Friday. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

WILMINGTON — State legislators met in Wilmington’s City Hall Friday to address school safety.

The House Select Committee, formed one month after the shooting at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School in February, is comprised of 50 state representatives.

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Several of these committee members met in Wilmington Friday, alongside New Hanover County administration staff, law enforcement representatives, and local elected officials. Representatives heard an overview of how its most recent portion of funding is being spent and asked New Hanover County School officials what to look out for when making recommendations for next year’s budget.

Recommendations coming from this committee added $35 million to this year’s state budget. All of last year’s funds have been distributed through grant programs:

  • $12 million for hiring on additional middle and elementary school resource officers
  • $2 million for community partners assisting students in crisis
  • $3 million for training to increase school safety
  • $3 million for school safety equipment
  • $10 million for mental health support personnel

Of these grant programs, the following counties were awarded funding in the tri-county area:

  • School resource officers: Brunswick, New Hanover
  • Mental health support specialists: Pender
  • Safety equipment: Brunswick
  • Training and crisis counseling: New Hanover, Pender

In addition to these programs, the committee also aided in allocating $5 million for the creation of a statewide tipline application. All public schools will be required to have an anonymous tip line to report internal and external risks by the 2019-2020 school year.

Law enforcement

After the Florida school shooting in February, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office conducted 70 investigations relating to school safety threats. Chief Deputy Kenneth Sarvis said a deputy personally investigated each threat.

To deal with incoming threats, Sarvis said law enforcement officers have placed a greater emphasis on monitoring social media. Threats are also encouraged to be reported through the schools’ “see something, say something” marketing campaign efforts, Sarvis said.

Sarvis told legislators that increasing the presence of Student Resource Officers (SROs) should be a top priority.

“The school resource program does not need to do anything other than grow, grow,” he said. “All of us know about how the media over the past few years has tried to paint with a broad brush law enforcement in general and that concerns me.”

Trust can be built early on, Sarvis said, through frequent student-officer interactions.

“No matter what’s on TV, they get to see that SRO daily, they get to have that interaction daily,” he said.

With 44 schools, New Hanover County has the 12th largest district in the state. SROs are funded at the county level, with some assistance from the city. Each of the county’s high schools has three SROs while middle schools each have one.

County commissioner Skip Watkins said this year the county added five additional SROs to its budget, along with three mental health professionals and two school-based nurses. Watkins acknowledged that SROs are in short supply at the elementary level.

There’s no population ratio formula followed when allocating SROs, Sarvis said. In Brunswick County, one SRO is stationed at each of the county’s 19 schools, according to Representative Frank Iler.

Safety in the schools

With or without officers in the schools, officials acknowledged most issues begin outside the classroom. NHCS Deputy Superintendent Rick Holliday estimated 98 percent of expulsions stem from criminal events that take place outside of school.

Meanwhile, Sarvis said the Sheriff’s Office has identified evidence of gang activity at the elementary level. When asked how officers can intervene early on, Sarvis said the department’s Gang Resistance Education and Training program has been effective.

“I like to say the G.R.E.A.T. program is like D.A.R.E. on steroids,” he said. “It is so much better.”

At New Hanover High School (NHHS), securing the school’s sprawling campus may not be likely. With dozens of separate entrances and exits and seven buildings that stretch across several blocks and Market Street, the school is vulnerable to outside threats.

Tais Aquirre-Ibarra, a student who accompanied NHHS’s principle at the meeting, told legislators her campus is far from secure.

“People don’t think about things until it happens to them,” she said. “You see it on the news, you see it happen to other people in your life.”

Mental Health

Coastal Horizons, the county’s non-profit partner in providing mental health services on and off campus, gets its funding from Trillium Health Resources.

Last year, Coastal Horizons made a total of 742 mental health visits with students at Laney High School, 336 at Hoggard, 351 at NHHS, and 414 at Ashley High School.

These numbers aren’t entirely reflective of the group’s ability to help students or the actual magnitude of students’ mental health needs.

Cristen Roggemann-Williams, Coastal Horizons’ school-based services program director, said resources aren’t spread completely evenly among the area’s high schools. At Laney, where the group logged the most mental health visits last year, Coastal Horizons employs a full-time therapist to remain on campus. Meanwhile, a part-time therapist remains on campus at NHHS, where 351 visits were recorded last year.

Since mental health is a medical field, confidentiality issues can also impact which students receive care.

“Because we bill insurance and because we offer confidential services, we have to have consent to treat a minor,” Williams said.

For students who aren’t insured, Coastal Horizons can offer up to 24 sessions a year. Still, it’s possible to apply for further treatment if needed, Williams said.

“I’ve never had an issue with kids not getting approved for services if they’ve needed them,” she said.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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