A Mt. Tabor student is one of 28 victims to die by gunfire on school campuses nationwide this year. Some local leaders say more school resource officers could alleviate the violence, while others call for better mental health options and demand poverty be addressed.

by Lauren Berryman

As gun violence escalates around the country, lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, school officials and community leaders continue to grapple with the presence of firearms in schools.

This year, more than 18,000 people have died by deliberate or accidental gunfire in the United States, including more than 1,300 children, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit research group tracking gun violence in the US. This number does not include suicides, which would nearly double the count. American Violence, also tracking gun incidents, found that shootings are up in cities including Winston-Salem, where 38 more shootings occurred from October 2020 through September 2021 compared to the previous year.

Homicides within the last almost six months in Winston-Salem. (screenshot)

While officials search for a solution, gun violence continues to take the lives of youth, including 15-year-old William Chavis Renard Miller Jr., who was shot at Mt. Tabor High School on Sept. 1. This tragedy marked the first deadly school shooting at any Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (WSFC) School, district officials said to the best of their knowledge.

Miller was fatally shot by another 15-year-old student, Maurice Trevon Evans Jr., on what started out as a normal Wednesday at school. Evans’ attorney said the teen allegedly shot Miller out of fear after receiving a death threat from him, the Winston-Salem Journal reported last month. Miller is one of 28 victims to die by gun violence in US schools so far this year, according to Everytown Research.

“I was just frozen,” said Kyli White, a second-grade teacher, thinking about how she reacted to the Mt. Tabor shooting. “I immediately, in my mind, went back to Sandy Hook,” where 26 elementary students and school staff in Connecticut were shot and killed in 2012.

Since the beginning of the school year, WSFC Schools, which serves about 53,000 students, has reported seven guns and six BB guns on campuses according to an email by Brent Campbell, chief marketing and communications officer for the school system.

Some worry the pandemic led to increased trauma among youth, resulting from parents losing jobs and less-structured schedules for kids. With fewer places to go, many kids spent more time in their neighborhoods.

“You have these issues that are spinning out of control in communities,” said Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. “These issues spin their way into the school systems. These disputes from the violence leave the community and come to the school.”

For the first time in 10 years, FBI data shows North Carolina’s violent crimes rate surpassed the country’s rate in 2020. Homicides in the state continue to exceed the national rate as well.

“I’m concerned; I’ve always been concerned,” Judy Uhrig, Winston-Salem resident, said. “These guns, they’re everywhere.”

Addressing gun violence in our schools

To abate gun violence incidents in WSFC Schools, county leaders have both short- and long-term goals. Following the Mt. Tabor shooting, principals and officers now search students with hand wands as needed; staff use detectors to screen people coming to large events, like football games. A search dog brought into schools by the sheriff’s office now sniffs for guns.

“My immediate response is that I have taken what they call ‘rob Peter to pay Paul,’” Sheriff Kimbrough said. “I have pulled people from other parts of this agency to augment the school system. I can’t keep that up though. I can’t pull people from what they normally or should be doing, but I’ve got to do that to make sure our schools are safe.”

Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr.

Kimbrough said in an interview last month that the principals he talked to think their schools need more officers in schools, commonly known as school resources officers (SROs), to keep students and staff safe. Currently, 37 deputies work in the SRO division, one at each WSFC middle and high school. On Jan. 1, five more SROs will start at Mt. Tabor, Paisley, Parkland, Reynolds and Glenn — where weapons have been found — upping the number to 42 deputies.

But many activists and social justice scholars don’t think more police will solve the gun violence problem. Rather, they argue that it reinforces the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a national trend indicating marginalized students are fed into the criminal justice system rather than having their needs met with additional counseling and educational opportunities.

“I believe that there is still a role for law enforcement in our society, but I do not believe that simply having more police is the answer,” said Kami Chavis, professor of law at Wake Forest University’s School of Law, speaking to the national trend of gun violence. “I think that we need to have more effective law enforcement, and law enforcement officers need to be seen as guardians of the community rather than having a warrior mentality.”

WSFC Schools Superintendent Tricia McManus said while security measures have been taken, “that doesn’t fix the underlying problem.” She explained that fostering relationships with students is key because the community’s support is necessary to succeed.

“Students have to feel that the adults in the schools know them,” she said. “That they’ve built relationships with them. That there’s someone there that they can speak to. That’s the kind of culture that we expect in all schools. That’s the kind of culture that changes the trajectory for our children, and so that’s where we’re investing most of our time.”

But some WSFC Schools social workers divide their time between multiple schools. And McManus said in an interview last month that she is having trouble filling two social-worker positions.

Her next step, she said, is figuring out why students are bringing these weapons to school. She wants to create an environment where kids can talk openly to help safely and effectively resolve disputes.

The root of the problem

McManus explained one way societal issues make their way into schools is through the burdens, or “backpacks,” some children carry.

“They have a backpack of things that you can see and are clear. And they have a backpack that’s invisible of things that you cannot see,” McManus said, referencing the book Two Backpacks, by Adolph Brown. “That’s what has to be uncovered.”

WSFCS Superintendent Tricia McManus

Sheriff Kimbrough acknowledges these burdens stem from the economic, social and racial divisions within the city.

“In one part of the city, it has a 14-year less life expectancy than anywhere else in the county. In the same part of the city, you have the highest rate of poverty,” Kimbrough said, referencing data from the US Small-Area Life Expectancy and Estimates Project.

He said issues with poverty, equality and equitability drive violence in these communities. There have been 29 murders across the city this year, tracked by the Winston-Salem Police Department in a report and crime map. As Kimbrough indicated, the murders are mostly confined to one part of town: along US 52 in East Winston.

“Unfortunately, in my opinion, it took them doing the shooting in a school for people to start taking it seriously,” said Sarah Gray, a Winston-Salem resident. “This is happening out in these neighborhoods and streets often. It’s just people kind of can turn a blind eye because it’s not their neighborhood.”

To some social justice scholars, addressing mental health or gang presence is not enough. They said these issues are byproducts of a larger, systemic issue, and that’s poverty.

“We know that Winston-Salem is infamous for the way that children are trapped in cycles of poverty, and everyone in the city is complicit in it,” said Dr. Brittany Battle, assistant professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. She added that gentrification and limited resources allocated to oppressed communities exacerbate divisions.

Terrance Hawkins, founder of a local youth development initiative called Lit City and lifelong Winston-Salem resident, echoes this sentiment.

“When communities are systematically destabilized, gangs organically form,” Hawkins said. “Those gangs are a response to fear, a response to trauma, a response to so many other issues that Black and Brown working-class communities of Winston-Salem face.”

To label it a gang issue, he added, zooms in on the symptom without addressing the cause. To address poverty, he said these communities need better access to affordable housing, healthcare, mental health, transportation and education.

“It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the history and see how mass investment in one side of town and disinvestment in another can create all sorts of communal ills,” Hawkins said.

Community involvement

On Nov. 20, locals can exchange their firearms for cash with no questions asked at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds. This buyback program, led by Councilwoman Barbara Hanes Burke and the Winston-Salem Police Department, is one of the city’s latest efforts to reduce the number of guns in the community.

To help augment changes taking place in schools, local activists, including Antonio Stevenson, founder of the after-school mentorship program, My Brother’s Second Chance, are encouraging community members to get involved in supporting the city’s youth.

While service is voluntary, Stevenson said, “your payment is you’re saving a life.”

Terrance Hawkins (photo by Kenneth Williams)

Stevenson said kids search for a sense of belonging after the school day ends, leading some to join gangs. His program offers kids another support system by teaching leadership skills, offering tutoring and practicing football. The sheriff’s office and YMCA are partnering with My Brother’s Second Chance to mentor Forsyth County youth.

“Some join the gangs because they’re getting bullied by other kids,” Stevenson said. “Some just aren’t receiving love from anyone else. They’re just trying to belong.”

In addition, Hawkins has spent the past 10 years leading the grassroots organization Lit City, where he works with local Black and Brown children in schools, recreation centers and churches, empowering them to develop their identities, navigate barriers and grow in self-advocacy to resist societal injustices.

Hawkins said he’s looking forward to Cure Violence Global coming to Winston-Salem to help de-escalate violence.

The organization treats violence as a public health issue and, more specifically, a transmissible disease.

“If someone is exposed to violence, whether that means witnessing or experiencing it, they’re then more likely to have the potential to commit violence in the future,” said a representative from Cure Violence. “It spreads from person-to-person and then becomes contagious as it becomes a norm in that community.”

Cure Violence hopes to change the narrative, saying it is not bad people who are violent, but that violenceis a bad behavior that can change. And that’s why Kimbrough said it’s going to take a multifaceted approach to fix the overarching problem of violence in the community.

“[Gun violence] is not a school problem. It’s not a sheriff’s problem. It’s a community problem. It’s a ‘we’ problem,” Kimbrough said. “We’ve got to come together and fix this problem.”

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