The shooting at the school convinced county leaders it was time to do something.
In August 2021, on his first day back in class after a suspension, a 15-year-old student at New Hanover High School shot one of his peers in the hand and leg.
The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and the New Hanover County Board of Education held joint meetings in the aftermath, listening to viewpoints from a variety of community members and devising ways to address the gun violence that had come to a tipping point in the shooting at the high school.
“The county listened and planned. And what’s resulted is a three-year investment of $39 million in our community in response to community violence,” said Judge Jay Corpening, from the Fifth Judicial District, which covers New Hanover and Pender counties.
That money went to a host of programs, Corpening told a meeting of the state Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice last Friday. It funded four new school resource officers’ deployment to downtown elementary schools, added a threat assessment training for police officers posted in schools, and expanded a gang violence prevention program.
Officials also took a more holistic approach to dealing with crime, building a grocery store in a food desert on the north side of Wilmington, broadening an existing program to address the social and emotional needs of high school students, and adding six pre-K classes that would serve 90 students.
“We got to take care of our community as part of responding to community violence,” Corpening said.
But the “focal point” of the county’s investment, Corpening said, is Port City United. The group employs people to do violence interruption and outreach, as well as connect residents with needed resources. The new program’s executive director is Cedric Harrison, an alma mater of New Hanover High School — himself was a victim of gun violence just three months ago.
“I was shot in my face, and came out of recovery straight into this job,” Harrison said.
Port City United has a comprehensive approach to dealing with gun violence that doesn’t rely on law enforcement. They provide wraparound resources through three divisions:
- a 24/7 contact center that connects community residents with resources and allows them to anonymously report threats that aren’t addressed through 911 or mental health hotlines;
- partnerships with nonprofits that bring community resource coordinators into schools to help students and their families get access to what they need; and
- a system of trusted outreach workers and mediation specialists who work in neighborhoods to promote healing and help prevent violence.
“Individuals that choose a moment of violence usually feel like they have nothing to lose,” Harrison said. “And so, we want to try to be able to really push giving individuals things to live for.”
Harrison said it’s important that community members not be suspicious that the information they tell Port City United will be passed along to the police. He does not want their efforts to add to mass incarceration.
“What we’re trying to do is actually keep individuals from being locked up and trying to do everything we can to help change their life around so that they can move in the other direction,” Harrison said. “We feel like if we have a very public — and a very close and transparent — relationship with the police, that it would make individuals in the community maybe distrust us, and would never even be able to put us in a position to do the work of providing resources for them.”
It’s too late for Port City United to keep one young person out of prison: Chance Deable, the teenager who shot his classmate at New Hanover High School, the incident that led to the founding of Port City United, pled guilty to two criminal charges in April. He will be incarcerated until he turns 21.
New Hanover County’s efforts are part of a broader movement in North Carolina and across the country to address gun violence as a public health crisis, a scourge that disproportionately harms Black and brown communities.
Since COVID, there has been a 35% increase in homicides nationwide, and 39%, specifically in the Black community, said Greg Jackson, executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund. While homicides harm communities of all backgrounds, 74% are from Black and Latinx communities, he said.
Jackson said there was an influx of federal funding to address community violence. He proposed investing it into victim-support services and violence intervention services based both in the streets and in hospitals, and providing trauma-related care and cognitive behavior therapy to help guide individuals to a safer, healthier way of life.
“As we’re seeing more federal resources, that is a huge opportunity that we can take advantage of in North Carolina,” he said. “The most ideal way to do that is opening an Office of Violence Prevention, having someone dedicated on your team who can build out the full comprehensive plan — they can pursue these grants, they can manage these grants, and then last but not least, oversee and manage the efficacy of those grants.”
Attorney General Josh Stein listed a slew of datapoints at the TREC meeting last Friday, underscoring the importance of programs like Port City United.
“Guns have become the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in America,” Stein said. “For the first time, in 2021, gun-related deaths surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the top cause of death for those under 19 years old.”
These are the numbers Stein presented to the task force last week:
105 — Number of children who died by firearm in North Carolina in 2020, an 88% increase from 2019
31% — increase in gun deaths in North Carolina in 2020 compared to the previous year
25% — increase in gun deaths across the U.S. in 2020 compared to the previous year
Five — roughly the number of North Carolinians who die by gun fire each day
1,650 — approximate number of people in North Carolina who died from gun violence in 2020. Four times that many people went to emergency departments with firearm injuries that weren’t fatal
49% — percentage of the state population who are male
84% — percentage of those who went to North Carolina emergency rooms for firearm injuries in 2021 who were male
Almost 50% of firearm deaths are homicides. Just over 50% are suicides
871 — number of suicides by firearms in 2020, a 12% increase from 2019
Three of four — number of homicides in North Carolina that involve a firearm
715 — number of homicides by firearm in 2020, a 32% increase from the prior year