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A North Carolina school district is accused of sidestepping responsibility for repeated safety failures, igniting an outcry from the local community.
Residents in Onslow County, North Carolina, are rallying together to sound the alarm regarding school safety following a number of student-involved incidents. Community members told Blaze News the district has failed to notify parents in a timely manner on several occasions and downplayed the severity of some situations. Parents question whether the district's existing protocols are even being followed and wonder what steps are being taken to ensure students are safe in class and on campus. Tensions ran high at recent board meetings following a fatal stabbing last year and a student-involved shooting just months ago.
Onslow County Schools is the state's 11th largest district, with approximately 28,000 students currently enrolled at its 41 educational facilities, including 22 elementary schools, eight middle schools, and seven high schools, according to its website.
A number of parents spoke to Blaze News on the record about their concerns. Their last names have been withheld from publication in order to protect the privacy of their children.
Student-involved shooting following reported death threats
On August 29, around 3:00 p.m., a student-involved shooting broke out across the street from White Oak High School that left one student injured. The incident is still under investigation at this time.
On the first day of class, a male student allegedly stole his former girlfriend's cell phone and made violent threats against her. The 15-year-old female reported the incident to school staff, but according to her mother, Julia, the school failed to take any action. Julia told Blaze News that her daughter was threatened again by the same male student the following day.
After the second day of the school year, the female student and her friends went across the street to a restaurant and sat at a table outside. A short time later, a car carrying several minors, reportedly including the male student, pulled up to the establishment, aimed firearms out the window the the vehicle, and began shooting at the teenagers.
Video footage reviewed by Blaze News captured the female student running from the patio to seek cover inside the restaurant. An additional video showed one of her friends reacting to being shot in the leg.
Julia expressed frustration that the district failed to take accountability and instead leaned into the fact that the incident occurred off school grounds. While the shooting took place off campus, it did occur within the school zone, she noted.
At the time of the incident, White Oak High School Principal Joycelyn Cassidy released the following statement: "Today, after school there was an incident in the community. While this happened near the school, there was no issue on campus and the situation is being handled by the Onslow County Sheriff's Office. We informed district staff and will assist law enforcement in their investigation. We have no reason to believe there is a risk of any threat at White Oak High School."
Julia told Blaze News that a family member had also contacted the administrative staff to report the threats made by the male student. She claimed that the administration "knew the gravity of the threats."
"He was telling her not to come to school the next day or he's going to get her," Julia said, referring to comments reportedly made by her daughter's ex-boyfriend. "We had to plead with [the administration] to change her class so that they wouldn't share a class anymore."
"The school failed my kid," Julia said.
A few days into the school year, the administration implemented a clear backpack mandate for all students. Additionally, the school rolled out a "Say Something" anonymous reporting application to report incidents. However, many parents voiced frustration over the district's application, accusing the school administration of failing to act when individuals report concerns.
In September, Julia received a letter from the district's Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Chris Barnes, informing her that the district had concluded a "thorough review" of the school's response to the reported threats against her daughter.
"In summary, the judgement and experience of the principal on the morning of 8/29/23 didn't lead her to believe that an immediate and severe intervention was needed," Barnes' letter, obtained by Blaze News, stated.
Barnes found that the school's actions "were in accordance with established board policy."
Julia filed an appeal with the board, accusing the school of failing to comply with Policy Code 4020, Discrimination and Harassment Prohibited by Federal Law. After filing for an appeal, Julia received an email from the district's administrative assistant, Jodie Ramsey, stating that her request had been reviewed and the investigation was "considered closed."
"A paper review will be scheduled and conducted in closed session by a Board panel in accordance with the policy you cited," Ramsey said. "The Board panel will review the written record together with the internal investigation findings. Therefore, there is no reason for you to make arrangements to attend."
Parents voice concerns and demand accountability
"Really, what are my options?" Julia asked, noting that she still does not feel like her child is safe at school. Julia was offered the opportunity to transfer her daughter to a different school in the district but stated that she is not confident any of the district's schools would provide a safe environment. Her daughter's friend, the one who was shot during the incident across the street from White Oak High School, addressed the Board of Education during a meeting on October 3.
"On August 29, I was the victim of a shooting," the student began. "Although the actual incident happened off-campus, it started on campus. A fellow student was receiving threats and the principal was made aware of said threats."
She argued that the shooting could have been avoided if the district's policies had been followed.
"Teachers used to get involved, but now it seems they don't care or they are afraid," the student continued. "They will hear threats in class and they'll say, 'Don't say that; don't talk about that.' And half the time, it doesn't get reported, but aren't they supposed to be mandatory reporters?"
The student's father, Shaun, also stood before the board to express his safety concerns.
"Have you ever had to see your child get shot? Have you ever had to dress your child's bullet wound?" Shaun asked.
"I do believe with every ounce of my soul that there are certain individuals employed by the district that are chasing personal and political gain," he stated.
Shaun told Blaze News that the district and the board failed to do anything about the threats posed against Julia's daughter. During the October school board meeting, the first to follow the shooting, the district's reaction to concerned parents was "defensive," he noted.
"When they gave their closing comments on everything, they pretty much turned around and pointed fingers back at us," Shaun said.
Following the meeting, some board members even engaged parents in back-and-forth arguments on social media, several parents and Blaze News confirmed.
Kate, another parent with a child attending a school within Onslow County, told Blaze News that she was attacked by two teenage girls while attending a Southwest High School football game on September 7, 2023. She said that the teenagers followed her daughter around the event and appeared to be plotting an attack.
In a letter to Collins, Kate explained that the teens were unable to hurt her daughter, "not because there was staff" and "not because there was an SRO" on duty, "but rather because I walked ahead of my family to create a buffer between this almost adult juvenile and my daughter."
"I was then attacked," Kate told Collins.
"Physically assaulted by not one, but two female juveniles," she continued. "The sheriff was called by multiple people. Do you know why? There was no one there in that capacity to handle the situation or even try to prevent it."
Kate joined other parents and community members in sounding the alarm about the district's alleged failure to follow policies and state statutes.
"Dr. Barry Collins is fully aware of the problems that we have in Onslow County," she continued. "As for the school board, I think that we have some really good people with some really good intentions. However, two out of seven is not enough to hold everybody accountable, especially when the school board members are being attacked by Dr. Collins, his staff, and other school board members."
Tyrus Kemp, the CEO of North Carolina Protect Our Students, told Blaze News that the district has repeatedly demonstrated a "lack of commitment to transparency, accountability, and parental rights."
"The district's administrative staff and the Onslow Board of Education are entrenched in a culture of evading responsibility, manipulating narratives, and prioritizing self-preservation. Unfortunately, this culture often drives decision-making not in the best interests of students but in the pursuit of personal careers by a select few. This culture, which is endorsed by many leaders within the district and on the Board of Education, has effectively silenced opposing voices and instilled fear among its members and within the community," Kemp stated.
He believes there needs to be a significant transformation in the prevailing culture within the district in order to ensure the safety of students and staff. Kemp called on district leadership to acknowledge their failures, hold responsible parties accountable, and value parents' feedback. Kemp and NCPOS have partnered with many parents in the community to assist with filing complaints against the school district.
"Regrettably, the district consistently responds by attempting to confuse and intimidate these parents," he continued. "In many of these situations the school district has violated a Federal and/or State law that has led to their child being sexually assaulted, shot at, or physically harmed. The district staff and certain board members are masters of making these parents feel hopeless and powerless."
Tensions rise at school board meetings
Conflict at the Onslow County School Board meetings began long before the student-involved shooting in August. Parents started showing up to the meetings in larger numbers following a fatal altercation that occurred at Northside High School on September 1, 2022. A 17-year-old student died from a stab wound after being attacked by a classmate with a pocket knife in the lobby of the school. Two other students were injured during the altercation as well.
The Jacksonville Police Department could not confirm whether the altercation was gang-related but noted that "there was an element of gang activity associated with the incident."
Police Chief Michael Yaniero told Blaze News that Onslow County School District "cooperated fully" with the department's investigation, noting that school administration and the superintendent were "at the scene" and "extremely helpful."
During a February board meeting, where several community members came to discuss security concerns following the stabbing, an entire row of parents were kicked out by then-Chairman of the Board of Education Bill Lanier.
"Take those people on that row. Get them out of here because I'm not having this in this forum. Take them all out, bye, see ya later," Lanier demanded.
Board of Education Meeting - February 7, 2023 - 6 PMwww.youtube.com
In March, board member Angie Todd made a motion to elect a new chair and vice chair, claiming that Lanier "removed private citizens without just cause" and failed to manage his emotions to de-escalate the situation. Fellow board member Louis Rogers seconded the motion.
During September's meeting, Rogers confronted fellow board members about one parent who was banned from attending future meetings after she attempted to make a statement earlier that year about the lack of safety by bringing a casket in the back of her truck.
"I bought it because there are a set of parents in Onslow County that had to do the same thing this year," the parent told WNCT at the time. "A student dying on our campus is unacceptable."
The school board's attorney stated that the parent was accused of an "attempt to intimidate board members" and subsequently prohibited from attending future meetings.
During his closing statements, Rogers explained that he was never asked whether he felt intimidated by the parent.
"Not only was I not asked, but I was not threatened," Rogers told the community. "I did not feel threatened because I knew why she was here."
Other board members used their closing statements to vent frustrations with parents.
Lanier told the audience, "If every parent who had an issue was allowed to run in here with a crowd behind them and force that issue full blast, without our concern for this district and managing appropriately, not one child in this county would get educated."
"My recommendation is, instead of reaching out to the two board members that you think got your back 24/7, try reaching out to all of us," he added, presumably referring to board members Angie Todd and Louis Rogers.
During the October board meeting, board member Elbert Garvey fired back at parents for placing the blame on the district and board.
"Things that are occurring on our campus, don't start on our campus. They come into our campus from society. Everybody wants to sit out there and blame us for everything — mental health, for everything," Garvey said.
"What about you guys?" he gestured towards the parents and community members attending the board meeting. "What are you offering us? It's starting in your communities."
"We want you to take some responsibility too," Garvey told parents.
Addressing school safety concerns
October's board meeting revealed additional safety concerns, particularly regarding an overdue threat assessment that was not provided to school board members until months after they completed an evaluation of the district's superintendent.
"The big key to this was there was a security and safety assessment done last year," Shaun told Blaze News. "Had the results from that assessment come out before this school year started, which it was supposed to, they could have rectified some of those safety procedures."
Additionally, Shaun claimed that the administration attempted to cover up its safety shortfalls by shifting blame on board member Rogers.
"Yesterday I was told by the district secretary that me and my colleague, Angie Todd, were not allowed to review the over 600 pages of the security assessment documents in private," Rogers stated during the school board meeting. "Let me be loud and clear — neither the district, nor any district staff has any authority to prevent any board member from reading confidential documents in private, especially at the district office."
Rogers questioned district officials about how the $63,000 safety and security assessment was conducted.
"The assessment was not conducted with the multi-disciplinarian team, as it should have been. That is state standard… That was not done. Why are we just now conducting a comprehensive assessment for the district? Why has the district spent so many years making arbitrary expenditures on security without any type of assessment by a licensed or certified professional?" Rogers asked.
The board member added that when he asked Board Chairman Ken Reddic when the district's previous safety assessment was conducted, he did not receive an answer because no previous assessment was conducted despite state and district standards.
"Based on general statute 115C-276 the duties of the superintendent, that the current superintendent has failed to fulfill his obligations in his capacity," Rogers declared.
Todd agreed with Rogers' sentiments regarding Superintendent Dr. Barry Collins.
"Tonight, I feel it an absolute duty to warn that I do not feel that our Superintendent in his current capacity holds the skills to manage a district of this size, nor do I feel he is able to ensure the safety of our students. We have requested meetings to discuss critical issues and were denied, information has been withheld, and limitations have even been set on reviewing documents when requested," Todd said during the meeting.
The district stated that it plans to perform a feasibility study for the everyday use of metal detectors and weapons detection systems in schools. The results will be shared at the end of the year.
Police Chief Yaniero told Blaze News that the district has partnered with the department to implement a number of initiatives over the past several years aimed at improving school safety, including adding more SROs and investing in equipment and training courses for officers. The district and the department also have a model agreement to share information and coordinate safety efforts. Yaniero noted that "many districts across the state do not have these agreements." He also explained that the district implemented a threat assessment protocol two years ago.
Yaniero stated that most of the crimes committed by gangs in the area include drug-related offenses, larceny, and vandalism. However, he noted an "uptick in violent crime activities," in part due to North Carolina's Raise the Age policy, which states that 16 and 17-year-olds who commit crimes are "no longer automatically charged in the adult criminal justice system."
"The state needs additional resources to address this small amount of violent offenders and make them accountable," he told Blaze News. "Crime in the school is a reflection of the crime in the community and with the challenges associated with 'raise the age,' the partnership with the Onslow County School District has become more robust to address those challenges, including adding additional SROs and coordinating the sharing of information with the Onslow County Sheriff's Office and their SROs. It is important to note that this is a community program and requires a community response."
Comments from the district and school board members
In a statement provided to Blaze News, school board member Angie Todd said, "After becoming a board member, I began seeing situations that were concerning to me as a community member, parent, and human being."
"It has become increasingly more difficult to sit back and say nothing as my term progresses," Todd added.
"We can't afford to waste any more time pretending that these issues don't exist in our schools," she continued. "The time is now to accept our responsibility in these situations and to work with others to create change for the future."
"Furthermore, Board members challenging the status quo in pursuit of needed improvements should not be seen as a failure to support staff in extreme circumstances, but rather as an opportunity for our public school system to regain trust and mutual respect in the community," Todd said. "Transparency is not negotiable."
School board member Rogers said in a statement provided to Blaze News, "A practical and transparent relationship between the board and the district is demonstrated when the board uses the superintendent as an intermediary to delegate duties and functions of both district and school staff. The superintendent's experience and education serve as a qualifier to facilitate this relationship. In the last year, I've observed that this is not the case."
Rogers claimed that the relationship between the board and district "seems backward." Instead of being accountable to the people of Onslow County, it appears to be accountable to the superintendent, he stated.
"As it stands, there has been little accountability from the superintendent's office," Rogers said.
"We've seen a parent attacked by multiple students while attending a high school football game," he continued. "There was a threat reported to a high school principal that ultimately ended with numerous students being shot at after school, which ended with one student being struck."
"A student was searched by a staff member with no cause," he added. "The district provided the board with the first-ever district comprehensive security assessment. (Let it be noted that the district provided the board with the 600-page assessment AFTER the board evaluated the superintendent.)."
Rogers said that his supporting claims were "not exhaustive."
"I understand that there is no perfect school and that problems and issues will arise. The part at which there is a disconnect is whether the district is doing (or has done) everything within its power to respond to such incidents appropriately," Rogers declared.
Onslow County School District Chief Communications Director Brent Anderson provided a statement to Blaze News, which read, in part, "Recent local events have started a dialogue within our community around the importance of issues related to school safety. Onslow County Schools, the Onslow County Sheriff's Office, and the Jacksonville Department of Public Safety agree there is no higher priority for our community than the safety and security of our students, staff, and citizens."
Anderson noted that the district plans to establish "Threat Assessment Teams," as required by recently passed state law.
"OCS is ahead of the state timeline in putting together these teams which will help identify, evaluate, and address threats or potential threats to school security," he told Blaze News.
The district's statement included comments from Board of Education Chairman Ken Reddic.
"The district has worked with OCSO and JPD to employ two full-time Safety and Security Officers. These officers will be 12-month (sic) with the school system and will provide support to the district's safety and security team. Among their duties, they will be able to provide backup for SRO absences, as well as assist with internal security assessments," Reddic said.
When Blaze News reached out to board member Melissa Oakley for comment and asked whether she would like to respond to the many parents who expressed concerns regarding school safety during the last several school board meetings, which Oakley attended, she requested specific examples.
"What are the parents' claims that are safety risks?" Oakley replied. "What parents have made claims regarding what school board members aren't doing enough about school safety?"
Blaze News responded with a few quotes from the hours of concerns voiced by community members during the board meetings. Oakley did not respond by the time of publication.
When asked what steps the district and board have taken to ensure students are provided with a safe learning environment, Oakley told Blaze News, "Want to know what board members have done, requested, recommended? Do some real investigative journalism and request FOIAs of all emails from all board members."
Board member Garvey deferred his request for comment from Blaze News to the district's Chief Communication Officer Brent Anderson. Onslow County School Board Chairman Ken Reddic, Vice-Chairman Bradley Williams, and board member Bill Lanier did not respond to a request for comment from Blaze News.
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Candace Hathaway is a staff writer for Blaze News.