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New Hanover County's school-safety plans remain vague, conversations likely to remain private

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The county staff are holding closed-door meetings to discuss plans address school safety in the wake of last month’s shooting at New Hanover high School. News Director Ben Schachtman brought Reporter Kelly Kenoyer into the studio to discuss the county's plans.

Ben Schachtman: So Kelly, you watched the county commission meeting Monday morning. What did you find out about how New Hanover County is going to spend some of the $350 million in hospital sale money on school safety?

Kelly Kenoyer: To be honest, I didn’t find out much. County Manager Chris Coudriet gave a pretty vague presentation to the board of commissioners based on conversations he had with school staff and law enforcement last week.

He said the solutions would fall into two buckets: Hardware, and people-centric solutions. The former involves communications technology for school leadership, and maybe other things they haven’t decided on yet, or won’t discuss publicly. And the latter is extremely unclear. He used the phrase “people centric” over and over again, and said he wanted to allow impacted communities to have significant say in the discussion.

BS: Do we know who he’s referring to there?

KK: No, and I’m not sure that we’ll find out. Here he is explaining why:

Chris Coudriet: “A number of the people that have been involved in these discussions have no interest in participating, if it means a camera in their face, or judgment on them and their ideas.”

He gave a similar reason for not talking in detail about their plans -- giving that info out could give the playbook to bad actors and make it easier to harm people in the school.

BS: Ok, but that doesn’t make it easy for us to hold school officials accountable, does it?

KK: No, it does not. Coudriet said we have to trust the school leadership to do what’s right.

Coudriet: “We’re not asking you to trust a county manager or a finance officer or anyone. Trust the people who are framing and guiding these discussions. If you believe in our principals, and our teachers and people who lead the nonprofit community, and I think we do trust that they are giving us what they believe is appropriate and necessary to stabilize, and then use other resources long term to grow and move as the community grows and moves.”

KK: There is some basis for the work they’re doing- they’re basing some of the changes on a school safety audit, which also is not public, but which evidently includes some solutions that will now receive funding.

BS: Okay, but that shooting wasn’t your standard, “lone-wolf” style attack by an outsider- this was, by some accounts, a student bringing a gun into the school for self-defense -- although the mother denies that. But District Attorney Ben David and others have discussed -- in general, not this specific case -- the issue of bullying that turns into gun violence. How are they addressing that?

KK: Yeah, Coudriet mentioned that there was social media chatter ahead of that shooting that something might happen at the school that morning. So part of this safety initiative may involve school administrators paying more attention to social media in order to predict problems like this.

BS: We’ve talked around this a bit, but… Is there actually a plan?

KK: Commissioner Rob Zapple asked the county manager that, and I think the answer is: No, but they’re working on it. Here’s how Chris Coudriet eventually answered the question.

Coudriet: “I think the longer term investments are generally in the people-centric place. I don't know when we will be in a position to lay out an immediate strategy on that I feel good about where we are, we know a lot more today than we did three weeks ago today. There are some things though, that we can begin to work on immediately.”

KK: Then he asked the commission to give him a deadline, and they did not do so.

BS: Alright. Well, thanks Kelly.

KK: No problem, Ben.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.
Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.