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New Hanover County is sending more resources into schools. We looked at how and why

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WHQR

In New Hanover County’s Community Building Plan, there is $1.1 million in funding for community resource coordinators who’ll operate inside schools — and $1.9 million for additional school resource officers or SROs. WHQR asked about these investments — and how the county will track their progress.

The funding for the community coordinators comes from the federal American Rescue Act Plan (ARPA). And money from the county’s escrow account — money from the sale of the hospital — now funds one SRO per elementary school.

Additionally, ‘impact zone’ SROs will serve Snipes Academy of Arts and Design, Forest Hills Global Elementary, Rachel Freeman School of Engineering, and International School at Gregory. In addition to those schools, D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy, Williston Middle School, and New Hanover High School are considered part of the county's 'impact zone.'

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Linda Thompson, formerly the long-time public affairs officer for the Wilmington Police Department, is the county’s chief diversity and equity officer. She said these investments were based on crime statistics, law enforcement call volumes, and input from the Sheriff’s Office, non-profit organizations, district officials, and parents and students.

“After those conversations with many of those community groups, looking at some of the data, we realized that [they] would certainly be better served by having a resource officer in and around those schools for the sake of, not only security but also for building relationships with the students,” said Thompson.

Tufanna Bradley is the assistant county manager. She said these conversations were integral to the decision to invest in these additional positions.

“One key thing that we heard directly from the students was they wanted more of an adult presence in the schools. So not to speak just to the SROs, but some of the other parts of the initiative to bring more adults into the schools, that include the community resource coordinators that we partner with Leading Into New Communities (LINC), Communities in Schools, and Voyage. There'll be 22 people put in seven schools,” said Bradley.

These community resource coordinators will help connect students and their families with the resources they need in terms of education, nutrition, health, and social support.

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This is a breakdown of where the resource coordinators will be located and which nonprofit is providing them.

“So we know that usually, it's more than one issue that a student is having that leads them to either poor performance in school or to participating in things that may get them in trouble, right after school,” said Bradley.

Limited science on SROs

Dr. Robert Smith is a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in the Department of Instructional Technology, Foundations, and Secondary Education. He said there aren’t many academic studies evaluating SRO outcomes, especially for ones serving elementary schools.

“There was very little actual research to evaluate, how does the hiring of an SRO affect school safety? So when we say we have a safe school, what do we mean by ‘safe school?’ There are many different meanings of this term, and oftentimes there isn't a discussion of that,” said Smith. “And certainly, in terms of evaluating the money that we're spending on safe schools, there is often very little follow-up to evaluate whether the expenses are achieving what we hope to achieve from them.”

And on the whole, according to Smith, the academic studies that exist show mixed results on SRO impact.

“On the one hand ... there is some, not a strong body of evidence, suggesting that SROs do mitigate some types of violence in schools, so there are some positive benefits, but there is also strong research showing the negative effects of having SROs in schools, and that's the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Smith.

One study that stands out to Smith evaluated the federal COPS grant — comparing outcomes between schools that received funding for SROs versus ones that didn’t.

“And what the research shows is that the schools, which received the COPS grant that hired the SROs, there was an increase in student suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, and this was particularly so for students of color,” said Smith.

From the county’s point of view, Bradley said those effects are not a goal of the SRO program.

“That would be contrary to this whole plan, that was never a part of what we were trying to do. We're trying to build the wraparound services and supports. The SRO was more of having that security and safety, but then also implementing some of the programs that they do with children and youth,” said Bradley.

Thompson agreed. She said SRO presence is more about building rapport with students, staff, and their families.

“I think we've got to look at police and law enforcement more than just someone who wants to arrest their way out of a problem. That's not what our SROs do. If they have to arrest a student or charge a student, that's the complete last resort,” said Thompson.

And the bottom line for Thompson is that SROs are there to prevent violence in schools.

“We got to think about the fact we've had guns brought to our schools, and who do we want to deal with that? And so I think that we are putting the right resources at the right places at the right time, with an assortment of resources that I truly believe are going to turn things around,” said Thompson.

But for Smith, “the hiring of an SRO is easy to do, but it does beg the question in terms of whether that is contributing to a safer school. But the more complex work around building relationships with a caring adult, that often is not considered, and I think that at the core of school safety is school climate,” said Smith.

Measuring success

As for the evaluation of the community resource coordinators, the county’s Office of Strategy will track things like attendance and grades — and plans on sending out surveys to those families they serve.

“We use Salesforce, which is a system that actually HHS already uses, and some of our other departments use, so we'll make sure that that we are documenting because, at the end of the day, our commissioners are going to want to know how successful all of this has been,” said Bradley.

Most of the county’s ‘community building funding plan’ supports some of these investments until fiscal year 2025.

Lisa Wurtzbacher, assistant county manager, said they’ll continue to evaluate these programs and “determine what we need more of, what we might need less of, and tweak the program along the way. But anything that's successful, certainly I would hope continues on beyond fiscal year 2025.”

As for the evaluation of the SROs, that’s up to the Sheriff’s Office.

WHQR made repeated requests to discuss the SRO program with the Sheriff’s Office, but no one was made available for an interview, and neither the county nor the Sheriff’s office provided any specific data on the efficacy of SROs in preventing violence.

Resources

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR