NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Top New Hanover County officials, school district staff and law enforcement leaders met Friday in a closed-door meeting to discuss safety improvements for school campuses.
Any investments that come to fruition would be funded by money from the billion-plus-dollar sale of the once county-owned New Hanover Regional Medical Center. County commissioners voted unanimously Sept. 3 to authorize the city manager to utilize an unspecified chunk of the proceeds, up to $350 million, to prevent a situation similar to the nonfatal shooting that took place at New Hanover High School Aug. 30.
Although few details are known about the motive behind the shooting or the altercation that erupted before, many local leaders see it as demonstrating an uptick in youth violence communitywide. Law enforcement officials have noted an increase in juveniles getting their hands on guns and suggested 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 juvenile was injured after 24 rounds were fired inside Ten Pin Alley Breaktime Billiards, the county government complex’s neighbor off South College Road. The next month seven young people were shot at a gruesome house party on Kidder Street; three victims died, the youngest being 16.
As Friday’s meeting was underway, Ashley High, Anderson Elementary and Murray Middle, all located in Veterans Park, went under lockdown due to threatening social media posts, according to a New Hanover Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust indicated the lockdowns were not a major disruption to the stakeholder work session since protocols are in place and he was not needed to give orders.
Journalists were not permitted entry to the staff-level meeting but were invited to interview County Manager Chris Coudriet and Foust immediately after it ended.
Attendees included the sheriff and chief deputy, the chief district court judge, the Wilmington police chief, the city manager, school-based mental health counselors, a range of county leadership, principals and teachers from several schools, and one parent.
While the overarching issue is identified as community violence, Coudriet explained Friday’s meeting was specific to improving safety in school buildings.
“It is a broader community discussion and those are happening, but today was about, ‘What do we do at our schools?’” Coudriet said, “because our kids spend the majority of their time at school, and that’s where they need to be safest and most secure on a daily basis.”
The meeting was described as a flow of ideas that were eventually narrowed to six priorities, three of which involved hardscape improvements and three of which were “people-centric.” Coudriet is presenting a more detailed overview at the board of commissioners meeting Monday, Sept. 20.
A hardscape improvement likely will involve studying previously completed safety and facility audits and determining what investments still need funding and what the district could implement more of, Coudriet said.
“I’m a parent also, so walking through those buildings, I want to ensure that . . . I can send my child to every building here and feel comfortable doing so,” Foust said.
Physical changes to schools often lead to accusations of punishing students and creating jail-like environments. However, metal detectors were shut down at the Sept. 3 public meeting due to limitations and a lack of supporting research and were not discussed at all during Friday’s meeting, Coudriet said.
“I’m gonna quote someone in the room –– ‘You can have beautiful facilities that are also designed to ensure safety and security for folks,’” Coudriet said.
Implemented by New Hanover High principal Phillip Sutton, a controversial clear backpack policy at the school is expected to go into effect in October. The decision was widely contested by the public. Foust told reporters he didn’t know if it would solve any problems but stopped short of offering an opinion.
One of the concerns brought up during the meeting, Coudriet shared, is the multiple points of entry on most high school campuses. Given its sprawling location downtown crossing Market Street, New Hanover High has dozens of entrances and is considered vulnerable to outside threats.
“How do we look at it from a perimeter inward to ensure safety? That folks who don’t belong on a campus don’t make their way onto a campus, but also that there is a way to move kids off campus in a safe and effective way when that’s necessary,” Coudriet said.
After the New Hanover High School shooting, students were escorted several blocks to Williston Middle and were eventually bussed home or picked up by parents in a disorderly reunification operation. County leaders sent media reports of the effort to each other via email afterward, calling on improved plans moving forward.
The “people-centric” improvements involve enhancing parent support and connecting families to resources, the county manager disclosed.
Foust said his top priority returning to the office is partaking in more conversations about the agencies available to support families and students.
“We’re not doing a very good job at coordinating that service delivery, either,” Coudriet said.
At this point, it’s not yet known how much money will be spent from the $350-million pot. Coudriet said participants in these discussions are asked to disregard the finances and focus on identifying the root cause of the issues.
“We can only set a budget when we have clarity on what the problems may be,” Coudriet said. “We have probably misdiagnosed a lot of problems. We need to move past things that haven’t worked, identify what we think will work and then put a budget in place that helps implement the change that our community wants, needs and deserves.”
There is also no timeline for when the money will be spent. While leaders want to move thoughtfully, Coudriet indicated there is a demand from the community and commissioners for expedited action.
The county plans to host forums for the public to offer input on how to best utilize the funds for community safety. The invitation list for Friday was limited.
No board of education members were present; the board was receiving training from the North Carolina School Boards Association and on the superintendent evaluation process as the school safety meeting was in session. 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 feel like we are an elected body and we get elected every couple years based on how the public feels about certain issues, and I would like to think we would know a lot about [the issues],” Walker said.
School board member Judy Justice also expressed frustration. She said at least a few board members should have been at the meeting: “At least three of us have got a lot of experience in public school, even here locally, and we’ve been involved, of course, daily involved with what goes on in the schools, so we would have had a lot of input.”
There were also no representatives of nonprofits that interact in the communities facing the highest rates of violence.
“What I would ask for the community, though, is to respect that a lot of these improvements don’t 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 listening or maybe even, unfortunately, passing judgment.”
Through the initial motion for these funds, the county manager was granted authorization to dip into the $350 million. However, to spend certain amounts of taxpayer dollars, the county must follow policies and laws that often require board approval or public bid processes.
Coudriet assured elected officials will understand what is proposed before any money is spent.
“It is ultimately community money so we haven’t lost sight of that,” Coudriet said. “We’ll be open and transparent and very clear with everybody, what we’re doing, why we’re proposing to do it and what the timeline is and what we believe the return on investment will be.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the sheriff was the only elected official present at the meeting. Commissioner Julia Olson-Boseman shared Monday during a board meeting that she and commissioner Rob Zapple attended.
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