NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Following the shooting at New Hanover High that injured one teen at the beginning of the school year, groups of students from different campuses have shed light on what makes them feel safe and unsafe at school — and the answers are actually quite simple.
In a report compiled by New Hanover County’s Office of Diversity and Equity Office of Strategy, students’ responses to questions were near-universal. Roughly 90 high schoolers who participated in focus groups emphasized the need for strengthened trust with adults in the buildings and creating community through extracurricular activities. They also made requests for basic improvements to daily school life, like buses that arrive on time and cleaner restrooms.
“As adults we tend to overanalyze problems creating a narrative that a problem is so complex that it must have an impenetrable solution,” concluded the report, entitled “Let’s Talk Student Voices Matter.” “Students have indicated that by simply giving them an opportunity to form connections with “trusted adults” (administration, teachers, coaches, counselors, and SROs) would significantly improve school safety.”
New Hanover County collected the feedback throughout early December and released the report at the end of the month. By then, a $39-million, four-year action plan, intended to curb community violence and spurred by the August shooting at the high school, was already poised for approval.
It was presented as a rough draft in November and greenlit in January. The county subsequently announced its new department, Port City United, which will oversee the initiatives outlined within the plan.
The action plan does not tackle all (or even most) of the issues identified during the student focus group, but the county says it did incorporate student feedback from other work sessions. Some of their wants and needs are out of the county’s purview. (NHCS stated its appreciation for the “collaboration and data sharing to ensure the best possible outcome for our students,” but declined to comment further on what NHCS is doing in response to the report.)
Still, county staff believes the students’ feedback confirmed the county put together a “very good plan” and intends to incorporate their input as it is carried out.
“The execution of everything that we’re going to be doing is really framed by this input and the input of our community,” NHC communications officer Jessica Loeper said.
Organizing the groups
Throughout the development of the action plan, county staff met with Superintendent Charles Foust and his student advisory group, as well as parents and principals. During those sessions, students suggested staff engage further with high schoolers across the county, who could speak to their individual priorities.
“They really thought that focus groups with students, where we could have the give-and-take conversations with them to really kind of drill down to the root causes, would be helpful,” the county’s chief strategy officer Jennifer Rigby said, “and so that’s what we have done.”
In all, the diversity and strategy offices met in five separate work sessions with an average of 10 students each, representing the four high schools and the early college and technical schools. Participants were 63% Black, 16% Latinx and 20% white.
According to the report, the results from each session were not shared with the other cohorts, but their conflicts and solutions turned out to be overwhelmingly similar.
What students want
Rather than physical locations, students expressed they feel safest at school when in the presence of a “trusted adult,” such as a teacher, coach or counselor. They also are comfortable in extracurricular activities or specific in-person classes, places where they feel a sense of belonging.
“I’m thinking about my parents — wherever my parents were, that’s typically where I was safe, and so that’s really how students looked at it: parental figures or trusted adults within the school,” the county’s diversity and equity specialist Travis Corpening said. “That’s how they felt safe more than necessarily, or in pairing, with a location.”
The high schoolers specifically recommended ways to increase the chances of each student achieving a supportive relationship with an adult, such as smaller class sizes, which they believed would help with behavioral problems.
“Students talked extensively about the size of the primary high schools inhibiting their ability to create those connections,” the report declares in bold font.
New Hanover High’s enrollment is over 1,500, while Laney High is nearing 2,500 students. That’s above the national and state norm of 500 to 1,000 students.
Students also urged a greater counselor- and teacher-to-student ratio, acknowledging that educators who appear “overworked” are the ones relied upon to supervise activities after hours. They recommended finding other people to sponsor the extracurriculars, even school resource officers with whom they reported having questionable relationships.
As far as positions in schools, the action plan funds 20 community resource coordinators across seven schools: Gregory Elementary, Snipes Elementary, Forest Hills Elementary, Freeman Elementary, D. C. Virgo Preparatory Academy, Williston Middle and New Hanover High.
The county has put out bids for nonprofits to fill these positions, which will work with the youth and their families to ensure connect them to all services available to them.
“Those will be also additional trusted adults in the schools that will be able to help out with a number of different things that occur at the schools,” assistant county manager Tufanna Bradley said. “The students talked about the extracurriculars and clubs and needing more people and adults to help lead those clubs.”
Who will students confide in?
A trusted adult is the second person a student would likely turn to when feeling threatened or in danger, according to the report. It was the answer 71% of participants chose, behind a friend at 73%.
A parent or sibling was preferred by 55% of respondents.
The answer “nobody” raked in more responses than the Say Something app, an anonymous reporting tool the district has pointed to when problems arise. The program rolled out to public school districts across North Carolina in 2018, with an annual operational expense of about $650,000.
Only 2% of students said they’d utilize the tips system.
They questioned its anonymity and usefulness: “Don’t trust, don’t like, not confidential, not helpful, not effective, too long, submissions go into the ether, too bureaucratic, only makes it worse, too much paperwork,” were comments referenced in the report.
So if students won’t report to an app, will they report to a call center?
New Hanover County’s action plan includes $3.6 million over the next four years for a call center benefiting the greater community, called “PCU Connect.” Loeper explained an educational campaign will spread awareness of what the 24/7 center does, and it will also continuously morph to the community’s needs and respond to feedback.
The 13-person team operating the center will comprise community members who are familiar with local issues, an advantage over the Say Something app, which sends tips to the national office in Miami.
“We have local people here, helping our community members, taking those tips and that information,” Bradley said. “So, they know it’s not going out in the ether to someone across the country or in another country. It is coming from someone right here in their community.”
A disconnection with SROs
Only 6% of students said they’d confide in an SRO if they felt threatened.
The high schoolers reported having zero connection with law enforcement. If there was any positive relationship to begin with, they said it diminished by the time the teens reached high school.
“Teens said they believed the relationship changed because SROs now viewed them as threats,” the report states. “It appeared that students were open to making a connection with SROs but didn’t know how to bridge the divide.”
They also insinuated that SROs didn’t appear eager to resolve conflicts and were often out of sight; students assume they’re in offices most of the time. They thought SROs could strategically station themselves in “trouble spots,” such as the catwalk at New Hanover High School, where the shooting ensued.
The county’s action plan puts $1 million toward four more SROs in elementary schools and will bankroll a $2.7 million expansion of the sheriff’s office’s youth violence intervention program Elements.
“I think it’s really important not just to look at the line item and the budget amount in terms of, ‘This is what’s going to be accomplished,’” Loeper said. “I think it’s important to think about the execution of each of those programs and building the community partnership and the trusted adults within the schools, working with the SROs. It doesn’t necessarily mean putting more money in the sheriff’s office. It means making sure that SROs are aware of this report, are aware of student feedback.”
Where do students feel unsafe?
When asked specifically about physical locations, 86% of the students indicated feeling most at risk in hallways, stairwells or the catwalk. The report stresses these routes are particularly crowded and lack oversight as students transition between periods.
Following hallways, bathrooms were identified by 57% of students as one of the least safe spaces, as the largely unsupervised sites welcome vandalism, fighting and vaping, according to the report. Students also are frustrated with the conditions, from missing stall doors to foul smells to an undersupply of soap and toilet paper.
The cafeteria was the third least safe area, followed by buses and loading zones — but students had a host of other issues with transportation.
A glaring bus driver shortage
Students are not oblivious to New Hanover County’s bus driver shortage.
Earlier in the fall, NHCS reported it was down 30 to 50 bus drivers and was making various adjustments to make do.
Students of the four main high schools reported waiting 45 minutes to an hour for their buses to return from dropping off a first load of students. Those of the early college and technical schools said the buses sometimes didn’t come at all or didn’t drop them off at their stops until dark. In some cases, bus drivers seemed “poorly trained,” making students uneasy.
“They indicated that as they waited outside, they are locked out of the schools, which felt particularly unsafe to them,” the report states.
They also expressed that some students who can’t drive or don’t own cars are missing out on opportunities to take classes at Cape Fear Community College or participate in sports or afterschool activities. The students in the focus groups recommended offering free student Wave Transit passes.
The county is funding an afterschool transportation program this year, but in recent talks, staff expressed the demand is about half of what was expected when $600,000 in federal Covid-19 relief dollars was originally budgeted for the program.
Other highlights of the report:
- While too much access to campuses has been a concern since the shooting, students said they also get locked out of buildings regularly and spend a lot of time outside trying to regain entry. Students recommended identification cards or keypads that open certain doors.
- Respondents indicated administrators need to lay down the law on the consequences of fighting to cut down on repeat offenders. “Students felt that some teens treated fighting as a way of getting a weeklong vacation from school,” the report states.
- The idea of metal detectors, floated by some parents in the wake of the shooting, was rejected by students who agreed the process would take too long and be ineffective.
- Students emphasized a need to keep classes in person because virtual learning worsened depression and anxiety.
Read the report in full here.
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