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County leaders host work session on school safety ahead of commission meeting Monday

Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 5:32 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Conversations continued Friday on how New Hanover County plans to tackle community violence.

The same week officers responded to a shooting involving students at New Hanover High School, county leaders authorized use of a $350 million emergency fund from the hospital sale to address the root causes of violence.

The work session Friday morning was not open to the public, but leaders confirmed it featured 25 to 30 community representatives from varying fields.

School principals, law enforcement partners, city and county staff, counselors, social justice groups, and some parents sat down together at the government center to develop a plan.

This week’s work session focused specifically on school safety, but county leaders insist conversations about remedying the root causes of violence in the community are expected to follow.

County manager Chris Coudriet said he really wants the public to understand where many of the ideas are actually coming from.

“A lot of these improvements don’t come from appointed officials like me or elected officials, 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 on what it is they have to say, so we need to ensure that we give a space for people who want to get involved and ensure that they are not compromised through their work,” said county manager Chris Coudriet.

Now, the county communications office is working on forums where other community members could weigh in.

The work session Friday morning comes ahead of a presentation that will be made Monday morning to the NHC Board of Commissioners, laying out specific goals.

Those goals haven’t formally been announced yet, but Coudriet explained they’ve narrowed their focus to six goals; three will be centered around “hardscape” goals for schools, including security equipment and physically addressing the number of entrance and exit points at each school; while the three other goals will be more “people-centric,” involving resources and services to support students and parents.

One group, reportedly outspoken in the morning work session, was school principals who shared a desire to revisit lockdown protocols. It’s a topic fresh on the minds of many New Hanover County parents after Ashley High School was placed on lockdown while deputies investigated threat on social media Friday morning.

“They emphasized communication as it relates to what happens in a lockdown, and I know we were locked down this morning as the meeting is going on,” said Coudriet. “Things are happening so fast and the school principal is responsible for the entire campus and they’re, number one, focused on safety and security of their students and their staff. But they understand the need and the role of communicating to the public.”

The timeline and cost of implementing their six goals also remains to be seen.

The $350 million pot of money the county manager has been authorized to tap is from the sale of the community’s hospital, and before any of it can be used, administrators must follow state and county protocols.

The fund is public money, and leaders insist the community will be well aware of where it’s going, and what the return on investment will be.

When asked about cost, Coudriet said their strategy is to first focus on what’s causing the shootings and instability, and worry about the finances last.

“We can only set a budget when we have clarity on what the problems may be. We 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 in our community — wants, needs and deserves,” said the county manager.

Violence in schools is a problem no community ever wants to have, but Coudriet and the district superintendent, Dr. Charles Foust said they were encouraged after today’s work session.

“I am excited to be able to work with commissioners and individuals. This is a community effort and so the reaction is ‘thank you, thank you for the support, thank you for the willingness to help,’” said Dr. Charles Foust. “It’s bigger than the schools and so being able to witness that... I don’t know another district where this is going on, but I can say that there’s amazing things going on at New Hanover County.”

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