NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Friday morning to allocate a yet-to-be-determined amount of money from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to youth violence intervention efforts.
The decision was made four days after a shooting at New Hanover High School. Monday, at least two brawls erupted on the catwalk of the campus and escalated to multiple shots fired. One minor was injured and a crowd of students was witness to the traumatic event. A 15-year-old student was apprehended within hours of the shooting.
Both the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education joined in a meeting with top law enforcement leaders, including Sheriff Ed McMahon and District Attorney Ben David, to discuss solutions to the communal violence spilling over onto a school campus.
Without prior public discussion on the idea, commissioner chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman made the motion to invest the hospital funds in this issue. Beforehand, she circled the room to whisper with commissioners and the county manager toward the end of a well-received presentation by New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening on a successful youth violence intervention program in Durham.
“We consider this an absolute healthcare crisis,” Olson-Boseman said prior to her motion. “It’s an emergency in our community. I got a lot of flack for selling the hospital, but I did it to help us –– to get better healthcare, absolutely –– but we also have a pot of money that we’re sitting on that we can access when we have crises in our community. Kids are being shot at school. This is a crisis. They’re being shot in the street.”
It’s not yet known how much of the money will be used. The motion gives the county manager access to the $350 million, which was set aside for the county to use in emergency situations and to support mental and behavioral health initiatives. A new foundation is overseeing the remaining $1.25 billion endowment from the sale of the county-owned hospital system to Novant Health, of which a fraction of the proceeds may be accessed annually (roughly $50 million in its inaugural year as investments grow).
“We want to give you what you need to ensure the safety of our students, our parents, our teachers, our staff, our volunteers in all of our schools, and also in our community,” commissioner vice-chair Deb Hays said.
The school system, sheriff’s office, court system, district attorney’s office, and the City of Wilmington are expected to collaborate on the to-be-determined prevention strategies funded by the sale proceeds.
Superintendent Charles Foust said he will provide updates on the progress made by the group leaders, possibly starting as early as late September.
“As far as I’m concerned, as soon as I hit this gavel, your work begins,” Olson-Boseman said. “There’s no set time to report back.”
Over the last year, youth violence, according to Judge Corpening, skyrocketed in the Cape Fear as a result of Covid-19. He called it “pandemic violence” because the trend is a direct result of minors losing the protection of school. Corpening said Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams warned him about a year ago the department was expecting an influx of juvenile arrests.
At the start of the pandemic, zero minors were confined in New Hanover County, Corpening said. Currently, a dozen or more are in custody for connections to shootings.
“We’ve got to find a way to address that community violence or nothing else we do matters,” Corpening said.
During the meeting, Corpening suggested the leaders look into a program that has proven successful two hours north.
Overseen by the Durham County Health Department, Bull City United hires and trains well-known community members as “violence interrupters,” who identify conflict and intercede before disputes escalate to gunplay. The mediators are “nontraditional county employees,” Corpening noted, as they are often former gang members and possess some level of “street cred.”
Corpening explained the program also links the people it serves to employment opportunities and other resources to change the trajectory of their lives. The judge said teenagers he speaks with weekly consider their life expectancies to be 21- or 22-years-old.
“What a terrible way to live. That can’t be the norm,” he said.
Corpening was unaware of the cost of the program but said it is worth the investment in Durham. While the county still endures shootings, it has noticed a significant drop. In the first four months of 2021, the violence interrupters conducted 233 mediations. More than 60% of those conflicts were likely or very likely to end in gunfire, and 80% of mediations resolved the issue at least temporarily or under certain conditions, according to the presentation.
More than 90% of participants were connected to jobs and 57% were employed, according to Corpening’s presentation. Nearly 80% exhibited gun-related behavioral changes.
“Can I say, ‘Hallelujah’? Can I say hallelujah in this community one day when we see 79% change in gun-related behavior?” Corpening asked. “I think that’s worth us taking a hard look at.”
Corpening also recommended a hospital-based intervention program, designed to present services to gunshot patients and end the cycle of victims turning into defendants.
Commissioner Hays said she had tears in her eyes as Corpening spoke, and school board chair Stefanie Adams said her heart was beating out of her chest after the commissioners’ passed the motion.
“Everyone at this table has probably spoken with somebody that was impacted on Monday, whether it was a student, whether it was staff,” Adams said. “The stories that have come out of Monday are stories of strength, but they’re also stories of fear. I spoke with one teacher that said it’s burned in her memory of the time that she closed the closet door on her students as part of the protocol. What you have just done and what you have approved is going to give this community the opportunity to begin to solve this problem.”
Some of the leaders recognized several organizations already exist to aid, such as Voyage, formerly known as The Blue Ribbon Commission.
Commissioner Rob Zapple expressed his support of the motion, noting that a “flood” of law enforcement in schools is unsustainable, and remote learning nor metal detectors are viable options.
Since the shooting, community members are questioning whether installing metal detectors in the school is necessary. Corpening believes metal detectors would not have stopped Monday’s shooting, though it may have changed the location of the incident on campus. He said research affirms metal detectors do not prevent school violence but instead make kids feel as if they are in jail.
School board member Stephanie Walker said she hoped some of the money would go toward expanding early education.
“I believe early education and really going into these communities and supporting those communities is where we can start from the bottom up. We might not have some of these issues, you know, in the end,” Walker said.
This year the commissioners allocated money in the budget to double the number of pre-K classes in the system from three to six.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield voiced favor of reducing suspensions among kids 7 and younger, a movement gaining steam in the community.
“If you put a kid on the wrong course at an early age, they may internally think that, ‘Maybe, I’m not a good kid,’” Barfield said. “But if you tell that kid and reinforce that, ‘You are a good kid,’ it should change their whole thought process and their whole outcome.”
Chairwoman Adams encouraged the full group to reconvene at a later date to continue studying solutions.
Catch up on PCD’s coverage of the NHHS shooting from Monday:
- Mom of New Hanover High shooting suspect says she sought help from district days before incident
- Governor Cooper addresses back-to-back school shootings this week
- ‘Safety is our top priority’: NHHS principal pens message to students after first day back since shooting
- 2 calls, 2 emails: NHCS defends crisis communications on day of New Hanover High shooting
- Emergency transcript reveals official timeline of response to New Hanover High shooting
- Unification operation at Williston was disorderly, chaotic post-New Hanover High shooting
- New Hanover High won’t resume classes Tuesday, district will audit shooting that left one student injured
- 15-year-old shooter apprehended after opening fire in New Hanover High School catwalk
- Video shows shooting on New Hanover High catwalk, one student injured, others evacuate to Williston
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