Deep Dive: The results of a $10 million anti-violence study in New Hanover County Schools are missing
In the mid-2000s, New Hanover County Schools and UNCW received over $10 million in federal grant funding to study approaches to violence prevention in schools — but almost all evidence of the grant, and the research it funded, has gone missing. WHQR spoke to the former program evaluator, who fears key insights from the project may have been lost.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information supporting Dr. Caroline Clements’ description of the grant program.
In early September of last year, after the New Hanover High School shooting, New Hanover County politicians, law enforcement, and community members started to discuss what to do about both school and community violence. During this time, WHQR received a tip from someone asking about a $10 million grant awarded to New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) and the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) to study school violence. And as it turns out, the district did receive this large federal grant back in the mid-2000s.
But what happened to the grant, the work it funded, and all the records of the program? And what role would that work have in the conversations going on, right now, about violence in and around schools?
The missing grant
The federal grant was called The Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Education, and Justice. It was created to reduce violence and substance abuse, increase the mental well-being of students, and create positive school climates. Also in the grant’s purview was reducing school shootings, prompted by the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
Over the course of the grant— which received a two-year extension from five to seven years — the school district received a total of $8.9 million, according to Dr. Caroline "Carrie" Clements, a UNCW professor, psychologist, and the program’s lead evaluator. Clements has been a professor at UNCW since 1997 and she mainly researches partner violence and has a research lab on campus that studies the issue with about 15 undergraduate students and about 3 graduate students. She also has a small psychotherapy practice.
UNCW was also awarded $1.7 million to evaluate the initiative, according to Clements, who ran that evaluation along with 23 undergraduate students, 9 graduate students, and a UNCW project manager.
When WHQR reached out to Clements in September 2021, she said her team produced thousands of pages of reports, both quarterly and annually, to the district, namely to former superintendent Al Lerch (also an assistant superintendent during this time) and the school system’s manager of the project, Lisa Brewster. She also said around 28 community agencies were involved in their work.
Clements said they ran trainings and produced curriculum based on decreasing violence in schools and evaluated the impact of that curriculum for NHCS students from pre-K to high school. According to Clements, and to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association’s overall evaluation of the national program, the program was successful in reducing violence in schools. The program's efficacy was tracked through the number of referrals (namely acts of violence) to school resource officers — and through surveying students on the number of violent incidents they experienced, both through Clements’ own survey tool and through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Clements told WHQR back in September 2021, “To my knowledge, there was no follow-up to the grant, which was a great loss. Having a huge amount of local data showing what works and doesn’t in our particular school system would and should have been an invaluable resource in guiding policy to target programs that work in reducing school violence taking into account the very specific local challenges we face.”
“All of those million dollars were invested, and I suspect there is not a soul in the current school administration who even knows this was done,” said Clements.
Searching for the grant documentation
Unfortunately, Clements’ fears of her work disappearing more or less came to pass.
Officials from New Hanover County Schools, UNCW, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, and the New Hanover County District Attorney’s Office all said they don’t remember the specific grant to NHCS and UNCW — nor do they have evidence to show that it existed. That also goes for the federal agencies (SAMHSA, DOJ, and DOE) that put up the funding for the grant program. WHQR put in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the documentation, and they could not locate any reports for New Hanover County Schools.
This also goes for Clements’ own records of the grant program.
“It breaks my heart, too, because I've moved between three buildings. I've moved four computer systems. I think it's got to be here somewhere, but I know that the school system got hard copies and electronic copies of everything I sent," she said.
In response to a March 2022 public records request for the Clements’ grant documentation, UNCW attorney Steven Miller, responded in April.
“The university wanted to be certain it had looked into every possible lead before we reported that it does not have these records. The Sponsored Program Office, where grants are administered, was contacted and they did a review,” said Miller. “Dr. Clements reviewed her records, including emails. We also investigated any records that may have been shared with her project manager, who left UNCW about 6 years ago, to no avail. I think that record retention schedules, turnover of people, replacement of computers, drives and servers, and the fact that the university’s email system was replaced over five years ago (but after emails these records would have last been sent) resulted in these records no longer existing on campus. Sorry about the result.”
According to Russell Clark, a public information officer for NHCS, the district has tried to locate documents related to Lerch and Brewster, but to no avail.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, who was first elected in 2008 when the grant work was being done, didn’t respond to WHQR about whether he had knowledge of the grant.
But there is one piece of evidence of the grant’s programming. Clements and her team sent mock ‘intruders’ into the schools to test whether they could get past the district’s security measures.
Clements said during the time of the grant, their intruders “figured out where to get in – and could always get in.”
She said district leadership and the principals all signed off on her team’s efforts to test weaknesses in the buildings’ security systems.
“New Hanover County Schools spent a lot of money hardening their schools, and what happened was that our intruders went right past them,” said Clements. Even at the check-in desk, the intruder would type in, ‘I am an intruder’ And they went right on their way," Clements said.
WECT reported in December 2007 that they obtained a copy of this intruder report from Clements — and Mary C. Williams Elementary was one of the schools where the “intruder went through unlocked doors past 30 school personnel, went into bathrooms, empty classrooms and even sat for a while at a picnic table on the playground without being stopped.”
A StarNews report released around the same time also describes the mock intruder portion of the study, confirms Clements was hired as part of the “federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students” grant. The article details reactions to the intruder study and references the executive summary produced, although a copy or link to that summary is not included.
Clements said her intruders showed the weaknesses inherent in the district’s security systems.
“School shooters don’t typically go through the front door and check-in with the receptionist, they find an easy ingress, so I’m all for having really good check-in procedures, but they’re not going to solve this problem,” said Clements.
Editor's note: The WECT article no longer hosts the intruder report. WECT attempted to locate the original report for WHQR but was unable to track it down.
Clements gave an on-record interview with WHQR in early June, shortly after a gunman killed 21 people, mainly young students, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 27.
She said in order to stop violence in schools, officials have to focus on educating students on anti-bullying measures and pro-social behaviors, providing school families with support, and instituting more restrictive gun laws, rather than adding more student resource officers (SROs) to the schools.
“If you give kids pro-social skills, the skills they need to deal with problematic situations, including their own families appropriately, and if you give the support to the parents to raise their kids, so they’re modeling the appropriate behavior, we’re going to be okay, but most importantly, you need to keep your guns away from your kids,” said Clements.
But as a part of this grant, Clements said she made the case to bring in more SROs into the schools, but as a result of her research, she now says, “If you look at school shootings, SROs haven’t stopped them. [...] It made people feel better, but they didn’t do anything. And we keep going for these types of simplistic answers, and it’s not going to work.”
Clements said national research shows that SROs don’t often reach the shooter before it’s too late — and that adding a law enforcement presence to schools doesn't address the underlying issues of less restrictive gun laws and the need for anti-bullying and social-emotional learning curricula.
In the 2023 fiscal year budget for New Hanover County, commissioners have appropriated $315,318 for impact zone SROs (sending SROs to schools that have a higher incidence of violence) and $1.6 million for elementary SROs. They also appropriated $1.3 million to the county’s newest anti-violence initiative, Port City United, and $1.1 million to community resource coordinators.
More on the grant’s results
Clements also found that these acts of violence can often be blamed on mental health. But she said the data is clear that “mental health patients are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.”
But Clements said the grant curriculum surrounding anti-bullying was helpful in decreasing incidences of violence, as well as providing the resources to help students who are struggling: “Rather than spending all that money on SROs, why don’t we fund school psychologists? Now, if I have to refer a 10th grader to another psychologist it may take me three months to get them an appointment, maybe longer.”
In an effort to understand what’s currently available at the schools, WHQR reached out to the district for these numbers. We haven’t received comment or been able to get an interview with Glen Locklear, who leads most of the district’s anti-bullying and social and emotional learning efforts.
But according to America’s School Mental Health Report Card, as reported by StarNews, New Hanover County Schools are “far from the recommended ratios of one counselor to every 250 students, one social worker to every 250 students, and one psychologist to every 500 students.” As of now, there are 307 students per counselor, 533 students per social worker, and 1,452 students per psychologist.
However, the district is using some of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funding (ESSER) to provide an additional 10 social workers, 10 school counselors, 5 social-emotional learning coaches/specialists. However, ESSER will run out for those positions in the next couple of years. The district has yet to respond to whether they will try and maintain these positions after that.
When asked about the grant, J. Corpening, Chief District Court Judge for North Carolina Judicial District 5, said he didn’t remember the grant program either, but his sentiments reflect some of Clements's findings in that it’s important to address the overall climate of a school.
“What experts say is take care of what's inside the walls. Because, you know, a lot of the behavior is predictable. As you build healthier relationships inside the walls, then when kids are talking about shooting a school up, then people hear about it," said Corpening. "Hardscaping doesn't necessarily work. Now, how do you hardscape when you have New Hanover High School with 80 exterior doors?"
The loss of the documentation of this $10-million grant program raises the question: how will the county, and the district, preserve the information and data gleaned from current anti-violence prevention programs? Will something that’s put into practice now be able to inform the community 20 years down the road, or will there be no knowledge of the intervention or program ever taking place?
“It makes me feel emotional, right? Because we worked really hard, some 20,000 New Hanover County students worked really hard, and 28 community agencies worked really hard. The fact that we have no record of that ever happening, it breaks my heart, it really does,” said Clements.
Clements said she still mourns the loss of her work from more than a decade ago — and the work of thousands of students and community agencies on violence prevention in schools.
“The fact that it’s disappeared blows my mind as a taxpayer and as a mom. The fact that they are allocating millions of dollars for SROs, and God bless SROs, but SROs are not going to solve this problem. We've had SROs in schools for decades. So the fact that that's what they're proposing when they have had $10 million of data, saying, ‘No, that's not where we need to go’,” said Clements.
WHQR did reach out to the New Hanover County’s Sheriff's Office for comment, no one was made available for an interview.
The future of school safety
Despite the loss of data from the $10 million grant, the school district said they take student safety seriously.
The district recently hired, effective March 1, Chuck Silverstein as its newest executive director of school safety. His position was made a priority after the New Hanover High School shooting. Silverstein has a background in law enforcement and worked for 27 years in a sheriff’s office in New Jersey.
He said his main purview is the security of the school system’s buildings – and he said he’s constantly checking doors and putting in work orders to ensure no intruders can enter its buildings. He said the district has a video camera at every school entrance and a screening process before someone can enter the school.
They’re also working on creating security vestibules at every school, which would be a double set of doors inside the first one, according to Silverstein. This would allow for more questioning of a visitor once they’re inside the building.
“Fortunately, I haven’t recommended any multimillion-dollar changes yet, but those may come, but so far they’ve been reasonable expenses that have gone to my direct supervisor,” said Silverstein.
As for SROs, he sees their role as integral to the safety of each school. One is assigned to each school — and Silverstein is the main liaison between the SROs, who take direction from the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office.
For those who aren’t as supportive of SROs being in the building, Silverstein said they are developing trust between law enforcement and the students.
“A lot of the SROs that I talked to, part of their function is they develop relationships with the students in the schools they work at, they'll sometimes go and have lunch with them, they'll meet with them, they have an office on the campus. It's so the students can feel comfortable talking to them,” said Silverstein.
But what happens if the threat is coming within a school — like a student bringing a gun or someone who can outmatch the security system?
Silverstein said it’s absolutely something he thinks about – “I have children in the school district, so for me, it's personal, as well as professional, I want to keep every student in our district and every employee in our district safe.”
He said he does that by having emergency operations plans and procedures in place for each school, ones that they continually review with law enforcement and emergency management personnel. But Silverstein said he’s working on creating with district staff, a more comprehensive reunification plan to share with parents if there’s an event like the New Hanover High School shooting in the future.
For example, telling parents where their children are located in the case of an emergency evacuation: “If you can give them information, proper information, it’s a win, because let’s face it, in today's age, information flies out there quicker than we can keep up with it, and not all of it is always accurate.”
Aside from continuing to work on hardening the schools’ security measures, Silverstein hopes next school year goes smoothly, as he said, “students, parents, staff have gone through a few rough years.”
“Honestly, students should be able to come to school and focus on getting an education, focusing on playing sports, focusing on developing relationships with other kids in schools. That's what students should be focusing on when they come to school, they shouldn't have to focus on, ‘Am I safe in my school?’,” said Silverstein.
Note: If you or someone you know has knowledge of or took part in the New Hanover County Schools Safe Schools/Healthy Student Initiative grant program in the mid-2000s, contact Rachel Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org.