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The communication frustration caused by New Hanover County school lockdowns seems intractable, for now

Peter Dazeley
Getty Images

Lockdown and shelter-in-place alerts have become more common at New Hanover County Schools – and parents are often frustrated at the lack of information that’s released when one happens. It’s a situation exacerbated by near-ubiquitous smartphones, federal student privacy laws, and the district’s alert protocols.

Not every student has a smartphone — but enough do so that when a school goes into lockdown or shelter in place, parents often hear about it first from their child.

But students and staff aren’t usually told why, exactly, a school is on alert – only that they need to follow protocol.

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust told WHQR, “We don't give a message to the staff when we're in lockdown to tell them what is going on in that school,” adding that at the beginning of the school year staff get training on lockdown and shelter in place, and are “told what could cause a lockdown.”

That means messages from students can be confused and confusing, even misleading — and often upsetting for parents.

Related from The Newsroom: NHCS Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust on school safety

And, while messages from the schools get out pretty quickly — often within minutes — they don’t usually include any details about what’s happening.

Foust acknowledged there’s no logistical way to get a message to parents faster than they’ll be contacted by their own students — and that parents might then have lingering concerns after they do hear from the school.

“We will never be able to beat a text message from a child to their parent. We will never be able to beat the voice of a nervous child to his or her mom or dad,” Foust said. “So it doesn't matter what I say. But if my child sends me a text and first starts off to say that ‘I'm scared,’ or ‘I'm nervous,’ [as a parent] I'm already like, ‘what's going on?’ And then if the district follows up minutes later, [parents will say] ‘Well, yeah, but there's something else going on.’ So I get it, understand all of it.”

Josh Smith, the district’s top spokesman, said often FERPA — the federal student privacy law — prevents detailed information from being released, especially if the student is under 18. Smith contrasted two recent incidents at Ashley High School.

“Think about the first incident at Ashley, and the amount of information that flowed and the speed with which it did — that individual was over 18. Contrast that to the following [incident], a week and a half later, that individual is under 18. FERPA rules, laws are applicable, they kick in, it's just a different way that we have to abide by the law,” Smith said.

Related: NHCS reacts to another gun found on campus, promises police K-9s and more student accountability

Lacking details, and often with a confused or scared child texting them, parents turn to local media for answers. It’s not an ideal system – and as long as the threat of violence in schools remains, it doesn’t seem likely to improve any time soon.

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. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.