BY MIKE FUHRMAN
Iredell-Statesville Schools officials have worked strategically over the past few years to ensure that students, staff and visitors are safe while they are inside I-SS facilities.
With funding approved by the Iredell County Board of Commissioners, the district has hardened schools against external threats — such as active shooters — by restricting access to buildings, installing interior door locks, upgrading security camera systems and partnering with law enforcement agencies to put at least one school resource officer on every campus. Threat assessment officers now monitor social media and other sources of information in an effort to identify possible threats.
Those investments have cost millions of dollars, and all district schools are now safer.
Following a couple of high-profile incidents at Statesville High School, district officials are now turning their attention to the behavior of a small percentage of students that threatens the safety of their peers and school staff, while disrupting the learning environment.
Superintendent Jeff James held a press conference with Iredell County Sheriff Darren Campbell, Statesville Police Chief David Onley and Troutman Police Chief Josh Watson on Tuesday to ask for the community’s help addressing issues that have led to fights and assaults on school campuses. Ten students have been expelled this year for violent incidents, including one at Statesville High in which staff members were injured. Earlier this month, there was a large fight near a bus stop involving a group of Statesville High students.
Parental involvement is crucial to stopping this type of misconduct, James said.
“We feel they are not or simply do not understand the impact of fights at school,” the superintendent explained. “We do have staff fearful.”
Statesville High now has three school resource officers and a K-9 assigned to work at the school.
The superintendent said the district will remain vigilant in its effort to make sure all students and personnel are as safe as possible.
“We pledge to our stakeholders that we will hold our students accountable so that all schools are emotionally and physically safe places to learn,” James said.
During Tuesday’s press conference, James, the sheriff and police chiefs were united in the position that there will be zero tolerance for fighting and assaults on school property.
“Our schools aren’t fight clubs. They’re educational buildings where you get a future .. If you’re coming to school for any other thing than an education, you’re coming for the wrong reason and we’re not going to tolerate it,” the superintendent said. “We’re going to do everything within the guidelines of the law, with law enforcement being involved, to make sure those students aren’t back on campus.”
Many of the students involved in these fights, James said, have a history of disruptive behavior dating back to elementary school. Repeat offenders must be removed from traditional schools to protect other students and ensure an environment that is conducive to learning, he said.
James asked parents to lobby state lawmakers to give local districts more control over how to best handle students who engage in criminal conduct and/or disrupt the learning environment. Currently, state law mandates how most incidents should be handled.
“There comes a point where what we’re doing is not working,” James said. “So we need to go to the next step.”
Sheriff Campbell said ICSO personnel, including resource officers, are committed to helping provide a safe environment for students and school staff.
“We are not going to tolerate any type of behavior by just a few that try to cause problems in our schools for the other kids and everybody that wants to try to learn,” he said. “We will adamantly pursue any kind of threats we get through our threat assessment officers, our SROs to make sure that the small amount causing those problems will suffer the consequences.”
SPD Chief Onley said his department’s SROs monitor social media to identify problems in schools and try to head them off before they escalate into a violent incident.
“We cannot let a small percentage of the population in our school system infect the whole school. And that’s kind of what we’ve seen — almost instilling fear in students and staff, and we’re trying to get those people identified,” Onley said.
SROs will turn over information to juvenile justice authorities and I-SS administrators, who can take disciplinary action against the students involved.
TPD Chief Watson said his department’s resource officers have received additional training on how to respond to violent incidents at schools.
Many of these incidents, he said, could be prevented if more parents instilled the proper values in their children.
“Without the support of parents, no matter what we do or what the schools do, we’re going to continue to have problems,” Watson said. “We need people in the community to start stepping up on that and encourage children to behave right.”
The superintendent said that many of the fights stem from “beefs” that originated in the community or on social media and then spilled over into the school.
Among the factors contributing to the increasing number of fights and assaults, officials said, is the recent change in N.C. law that mandates that 16- and 17-year-olds who commit assaults be treated as juveniles instead of facing adult consequences. Knowing that they will not face jail time for assault has emboldened some teens to commit these crimes, officials said.
The policy change, James said, “sounded great before, but in actuality it’s probably something we need to revisit because we feel like it’s escalated the amount of crime that’s happening because they are not charged as the adult when they turn 16.”
James also said that it is critical that the community step in to provide resources for families that cannot meet their children’s basic needs. Lobbying for funding for early childhood education, the superintendent said that too many students enter kindergarten without knowing their colors and numbers — and some don’t even know their name.
The disciplinary issues caused by the small number of students are not gang-related, according to the law enforcement officials.
Sheriff Campbell said there are “loosely connected” groups of individuals in the county that do not qualify as gangs. They are not involved in the type of predatory activity seen among recognized gangs.
Chief Onley agreed with that assessment.
“You have groups of individuals who get together today, call themselves a gang. Tomorrow they break up and attach themselves to other people and call themselves a gang,” he said. “Under the definition of a gang in North Carolina, they don’t come close to meeting that. Labeling someone as being a gang member is a cautionary thing.”
The teens who are attaching themselves to these groups are individuals who have had interactions with law enforcement for disciplinary issues throughout their school careers, Onley added.
I-SS staff member receive gang training on a yearly basis to help them identify signs of gang activity.
“I would say we don’t have Bloods or Crips or the MS-13, but we have wannabe gang members, which can be a little worse if they’re trying to prove themselves to get into a gang,” James said.
“Our work is to work in unison to make sure it doesn’t come to that,” he added. “That’s where parents — you have to step up.”