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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

NHC schools find financial records for multi-million-dollar anti-violence grant from mid-2000s

Map showing all the locations that received the grant
US Department of Health and Health Services
Map showing all the locations that received the grant

In July, WHQR reported that New Hanover County Schools and the University of North Carolina Wilmington couldn’t locate the results of a federal grant worth over $10 million, from the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education, to study violence prevention in the mid-2000s. But more recently, evidence of the grant has come to light.

While the findings and reports from UNCW’s evaluation of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, overseen by Dr. Carrie Clements, are yet to be located, the district recently found five years of financial records associated with the grant’s work.

Related: Deep Dive: The results of a $10 million anti-violence study in New Hanover County Schools are missing

These records show the district received about $13.4 million from 2003 until 2008,a larger figure than originally cited by Clements. Itemized financial records from 2005-2006 also show that many local government agencies and non-profit organizations received considerable amounts of this money to combat violence in schools, which flowed through the district’s budget.

Editor’s Note: The district only provided itemized records for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. 

The district was able to provide six additional positions using this funding: a program director (Lisa Brewster), an administrative assistant, a grant coordinator, a social worker, and two violence prevention specialists.

District analysis of the SSHS grant funding
District analysis of the SSHS grant funding

HQR has been unsuccessful in its attempts to reach Dr. Al Lerch and former program director Lisa Brewster for comment; both were an integral part of the grant’s execution.

But public records show that Lerch (1983-2010) transitioned from assistant superintendent to superintendent during the life of the grant, and Lisa Brewster (1973-2008), did serve as the director of the Safe Schools Healthy Students (SSHS) program.

Clements said that about 28 community/government agencies were involved with the grant; however, when HQR tried to ask community leaders about the grant’s work, few remembered it: Sheriff Ed McMahon, District Attorney Ben David, and District Court Judge J. Corpening all said they had no recollection of the grant.

Records from fiscal year 2005 indicate, for example, the NHC Sheriff’s Office received $44,000, the Wilmington Housing Authority $64,000, and Juvenile Day Treatment Center $150,000.

Safe Schools Grant funding
Safe Schools Grant funding

Back in June, NHC Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Jerry Brewer said he “hadn’t been able to locate anyone that is familiar with the program. Most are retired.”

Additionally, when Clements and UNCW couldn’t locate the records from the grant, HQR received a tip from a listener that sometimes these files can be stored in a data ‘farm’. HQR put that question to UNCW attorney Steven Miller in July. This was his response:

“As referenced in the university’s April 12, 2022 email, its records are kept under a records retention schedule. It is established by the Division of Archives and Records of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and is divided by subject matter. In this instance, the university has a responsibility to maintain grant reports for five years, after which they can be destroyed. These sought for records are at least 10 years old,” he said. “Notwithstanding that standard and expectation, university administrators looked for the records. Perhaps the description of that search suggested they were lost, when they were actually not luckily kept.”

Louise Hicks, executive director of Cape Fear’s Communities in Schools (CIS), said her organization did run a program that was funded through the grant. It was a parental involvement program (Families and Schools Together – F.A.S.T.), which supported families at a couple of NHC elementary schools.

Hicks said, “SSHS was a very large project with many different areas of focus and project partners. We too will have purged our files at this point, based on our record retention schedule.”

Coastal Horizons, which received over $99,000 in the 2005-2006 school year alone, was in a similar position as CIS.

The organization’s prevention director Deeanna Hale-Holland said they too “shredded [documents] given their age and the need for additional space during a past office move.”

Hale-Holland sent a list detailing Coastal Horizons’ involvement with the grant that was facilitated by the district and UNCW:

  • Attended monthly partners and evaluation meetings.
  • Collected pre and post-survey data for outcome measurement.
  • Facilitated Project Alert Curriculum for Middle School Students at several schools. Best Practice Program
  • Facilitated as a FAST (Families and Schools Together) Curriculum team member for parents and their children. Best Practice Program
  • Provided partner fidelity data.
  • Participated in partner training hosted by the school.
  • Evaluation was provided by the UNCW team.

Hale-Holland added, “There were probably more than a dozen community partners supporting that initiative. It was deemed a successful time but sadly, unfunded programs usually don't stick around if there is nothing to support them after funding ends. Our funding priorities were changed by the state office and we could not sustain those services after school funding ended.”

New Hanover County School board member Stephanie Kraybill took part in the grant’s work

Back in mid-July, HQR spoke with school board member Stephanie Kraybill about her participation in the grant’s work, as she was a long-time volunteer for the district. A major component of the grant was to prevent events like the Columbine school shooting from happening in the future.

She said because of the grant the district did comprehensive assessments of its security measures.

“Walking around the perimeter of the school, can [a person] get in? So those were eye-opening and were immediately addressed. One of the things that we did, we started active shooter training because that's when it [these threats] started to come to light,” Kraybill said.

She even remembered a Saturday active shooter training in partnership with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office that took place at Myrtle Grove Middle School.

“They used a cap gun to simulate the noise, so everybody knew, what to do, like, ‘Get behind your desk, lock the door,’” Kraybill said.

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

Overall, she said what the grant provided to the district and its students were valuable.

“The work that came out of it is still lasting. But one thing that I just want to say, is that most of what we found, other than some of the hardscaping [changes], the overall arching message was that relationships [matter], adults in the buildings, you know, counselors, mental health, all those kinds of things were talked about back then. And we've made great strides from then, just getting additional support in the schools over the past 15 years,” she said.

Related: How NHC high schoolers, teachers, and clinicians are dealing with rise in mental health issues

Kraybill said the district continues to have new safety and risk assessments — and after those occur, the school system plans to follow through on those recommendations.

She added that the district now has a new strategic plan (2022-2027) in place — and one of the main prongs is the safety and well-being of the district’s students.

“One is the physical safety, and one is the emotional safety, so our counselors and mental health workers, and our social-emotional learning curriculum, our wellness teams that talk to staff about self-care is important, and then, of course, our physical safety, we're getting cameras, everybody's more vigilant with just what's going on in the schools. Every school has a safety team. Every school has a safety coordinator,” Kraybill said.

Related: “It’s about being a good human”: New Hanover County school officials on social-emotional learning

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