Over the past few weeks, after a shooting occurred on the campus of New Hanover High School, I have taken a lot of time to sit down and talk with people in our community. There have been some eye-opening moments for me as a public administrator and as a community member.
What has been a common thread in those conversations is that community violence – whether that is street violence, gang violence, gun violence, or any other form it may take – is, at its core, tied directly to chronic stress like poverty, unstable housing, food insecurity, mental health, and other like factors. Community violence is also not just about those who perpetrate the violence, but those who are exposed to it and its life-long impacts.
As a community, we have talked about school and community safety for years. The Safer Schools Task Force, which is a multi-agency group, began in 2013 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They have developed plans, recommendations, and accomplished a lot to make our schools safer over the past eight years. We also have dedicated organizations and people in the community doing incredible work serving youth and families.
Now, we have an opportunity to further that work even more with the Board of Commissioners’ recent authorization for the county to access a portion of the $350 million in funds we have from the sale of the hospital. This funding will remove a barrier that so often exists when we are working toward meaningful and lasting solutions.
In no way should, or will, we spend the $350 million in its totality. We must be deliberate, community-minded, and ensure the investments we make now can be sustained into the future. We have to ensure the right efforts, initiatives, and paths forward are being funded with equity and diversity at the forefront. And we have to do our homework, consult with the experts, and listen to the community all along the way.
We all know and recognize that this is a community issue. Our schools are integral in our community – so we must treat our actions and objectives around school safety in the bigger context of the community. And that is what we are doing.
County staff is actively working in small groups throughout the community, with school staff, teachers, principals, parents, law enforcement partners, mental health experts, facility experts, and school experts – to determine what the near-term priorities are for safer schools and how to accomplish those.
These conversations, so far, have resulted in establishing several priorities as it relates to the safety of the facilities and campuses themselves, safety monitoring systems, and overall communications. To begin making near-term and more immediate investments, I believe we will be able to look at the needs already identified in previous safety audits and risk assessments to start improving school facilities and campuses.
Also identified is a need within the schools to support students and families with wrap-around services, mental health support, and community-based resources. Delivering those direct services within our schools is something we must do a better job of and will be a core part of our plan. And paramount in all of this is the desire and need to bring diverse students into the conversation and hear directly from them, and have them engaged in the solutions.
In addition to school safety, we must also talk about this from a community-wide perspective in the context of community violence. We are actively working with community partners and individuals who have a vested interest in this discussion and who are already on the ground doing a lot of this work, and they have been for years.
They know our neighborhoods and they have a keen awareness of the foundational issues and disparities that are leading to violence. We are committed to continue our work to bring these community partners together, build trust and consistent prevention resources, holistic support for families, and intervention in the structural determinants of community violence.
This community-based work is not as near-term as school safety and supports within schools. It is a much bigger, future-focused discussion that must start small and evolve with an intentional and comprehensive plan. We may not see immediate change, but I believe it is going to create lasting change.
In the coming weeks and months, we will be working with the schools and our community partners to host community forums and provide other feedback opportunities to hear from the public and learn about community needs, concerns, and priorities as it relates to school safety and community violence.
All of these conversations will help us determine the investments that are needed and how we need to move forward – both in the short-term and long-term – and our path will be fully informed by the voices of our community.
We don’t have a concrete plan today or a timeline of when investments may be made, but we are working toward that and will be intentional, equitable, and committed to the results.
The county has created a webpage to provide updates to the community, and I invite you to bookmark it and check back often as we progress: NHCgov.com/SchoolSafety.
Coudriet has served as the county manager since July 2012. Prior to his appointment, he served as assistant County manager for New Hanover County for four years and as county manager in Franklin and Washington counties, N.C. He has 20 years of public administration experience, with more than a decade as a county manager in North Carolina.
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