ROCKINGHAM — Community leaders gathered at Providence Missionary Baptist Church Friday night to have a conversation with parents and concerned citizens that grappled with gun violence, crime prevention, educational resources and public engagement in local politics.
In late November, 18-year-old Evann Jaqueez Taylor was charged in the murder of two 17-year-old Richmond Senior High School students. Pastor Alexander Herring of Providence, who served as a moderator for the event, said he was inspired to host this event by the news of these deaths. Earlier this month, a student was searched by law enforcement while on Rockingham Middle School’s campus after sending another student a Snapchat message saying “don’t come to school tomorrow” along with a photo of the student holding a handgun.
Three other students died last school year, one in a shooting, another in a domestic assault.
“We’re all here this evening because we love our students,” said Superintendent Dr. Jeff Maples. “We have students that are dying way too early at the hands of other students.”
Maples referenced fights at the high school, as well as the bomb threat the school received in September. The superintendent also alluded to the difficulty in getting students back to classrooms. Student absences have skyrocketed since the pandemic.
“They don’t seem to realize the repercussions and consequences of their actions,” Maples said. “It’s just not getting through to them. Some of our students are just now trying to get back, being with teachers and role models that they can depend on.”
Representatives from Richmond County Schools included Maples and two RSHS teachers, Arthur Gilliam and Tiffany Covington. Richmond County Board of Education Chairman Wiley Mabe and Board Member Ronald Tillman were also in attendance.
Covington said that the pandemic has had a major impact on students.
“There has definitely been a disconnect with our students since COVID when they returned,” Covington said. “They returned much different than they were when they left us pre-COVID. What I’ve noticed is that our children now do not care about their lives or anybody else’s lives. Violence is their answer, their solution.”
She added that many students were on their own during virtual learning and essentially raising themselves. Many of them are not bad kids, she said, rather they’re misguided and a product of their environment.
“These students think they’re grown up and we can’t tell them what to do,” Covington continued. “We have to still let them know that we love them, and that we genuinely love them, because they don’t think that people care about them.”
At RSHS, students’ book bags are checked each morning. Covington said sometimes this process can take up to an hour.
“As a teacher at RSHS, violence has been rampant,” Covington said. “It is heartbreaking that we have to [check bags] each morning because it takes time away from instruction. Kids are agitated, teachers are agitated. It’s not a good way to start the morning, but this is where we are.”
Gilliam emphasized the importance of social-emotional learning in the classroom but said it has its limitations.
“Us teaching social-emotional learning only goes as far as the teacher has a relationship with the student,” Gilliam said. “If the teacher doesn’t have a relationship with a student, all they’re teaching is a curriculum.”
Gilliam said that many students don’t know how to properly communicate or even know how to process their emotions, and that this is often a “learned behavior” from their parents. Specifically, Gilliam said getting 15, 16 and 17-year-old males to open up about an emotional issue they’re having is particularly hard.
“That shield just immediately arises,” Gilliam said. “Bringing in that social-emotional learning for me as an educator starts with building relationships. They won’t share with me if they don’t trust me. They can’t trust me if they don’t know me. If they don’t know me, I’m no good to them.”
Covington agreed with Gilliam, saying that some of the way that she gets to know students on a more personal level is through a journal or something as simple as a Christmas card.
“That takes time,” she said. “It’s not something that can be done in a day or a week.”
Maples re-stated the point that every student has the opportunity to be successful, but a caring adult in their life can make all of the difference.
“How do we, as a community, get our children interested in education, whatever that looks like?” Gilliam asked. He attributed the violence in the community to poverty, which he said is itself a byproduct of poor education and systemic racism.
‘Most violent year’ in Richmond County
“I wish I had the saving grace answer of what we’re going to do,” said Sheriff Mark Gulledge while sitting on the panel alongside Rockingham Police Chief George Gillenwater. “We’ve got to start with conversations like we’re having tonight. It’s not going to just be a law enforcement piece of the puzzle, or a school piece, it’s going to have to be a community of families coming together to say ‘enough is enough.”
In his 17 years with the RPD, Gillenwater called 2021 the “most violent year” that he’s experienced. The police chief added that the number of shootings and homicides this year almost all involve youth. Firearms thefts are almost exclusively committed by youth, according to Gillenwater.
“You’re going to have to find people, we’re going to have to build a program, where everyone sitting in here is going to have to play their part,” said Robert Covington. “You talk about a village — let’s put that village together.”
Covington said he’s spent 17 years going in and out of the prison system. He specifically said that the mental health of the youth in this county is paramount to stopping that cycle.
“Most of these kids you’re talking about are fatherless,” Covington said. “Mothers are doing the best they can. They’re being mothers, fathers, grandmothers, granddads. We got to go to the root of this thing. You’re already seeing the fruit; it’s not bearing correctly.”
“We have to really be honest with ourselves,” said Michael Legrand, a candidate for county commissioner in 2022. “We know, in the black community, we turn a blind eye to criminal activity. You know the culture: ‘mind your business, don’t be a snitch.’”
From working 10 years with the housing authority, Legrand said there have been many times that he’s had to instinctively duck due to people shooting weapons nearby.
“We’re going to have to take responsibility,” Legrand said. “Are we willing to put a sacrifice for our community? No one is coming to save our community. It’s left solely to us. We can’t say we’re against law enforcement on one side, and then when violence happens, we need law enforcement.”
Legrand reiterated that he’s not trying to point fingers, but that he knows there is an unwillingness to cooperate with authorities and report criminal behavior.
“What goes on in the black community would not go on a week in the white community,” Legrand said. “We know that. You can start right here at East Washington Street and go west to Ann Street and you can clean up a lot of criminal activity.”
As law enforcement, Gillenwater said it’s incumbent upon them to develop and repair relationships with all communities.
“We don’t have the ability to solve many crimes without having a relationship with the community,” Gillenwater said.
Legrand said that children need things to do in the community, a point that was also made by Tina Griffin and Rosalyn Hester, who were close to the two teens killed in late November, following a memorial for them held on Dec. 1.
“They’re throwing rocks,” Legrand said. “They have no activities. These kids are really crying out for help and we cannot continue to ignore them. It’s all our fault. It’s our responsibility, collectively, as a group, as a church, as a community.”
Zero students present for Friday meeting; ‘missed the mark’
Richmond County Commissioner Tavares Bostic, who rounded out the six person panel, lamented the lack of youth in the audience.
“These conversations have to include the people that we’re trying to reach,” Bostic said. “Tonight, we missed the mark on that.”
Tillman, who is also an Area Consultant with the NC Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said that as African-Americans and people of color, a self-assessment needs to be done. He also referenced the “disproportionate” number of African-Americans in the prison system, not just locally, but across the county.
“We can’t expect law enforcement to fix the problem. You can’t put it all on the teachers,” Tillman said. “We got to fix our problems and we know what our problems are. It is our fault. We see a lot going on in our community and don’t say a word.”
“If you don’t say nothing, you agree with it,” Herring interjected.
Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue put a question to the audience.
“What’s the difference between now and [40 years ago]?” Blue asked.
Blue said that single motherhood and firearms existed back in his childhood, but that the crime today is far worse.
“We want to be our kid’s friend,” Blue said, stating that his mother would not stand for criminality from anyone in her neighborhood, whether they were related or not. “Parents have to be parents.”
Commissioner Andy Grooms said he came to the event primarily to listen, but in his view, introducing positive male role models into young men’s lives is a fundamental part of the solution to the issues at hand.
Stephanie Little, Career Center Operations Manager with NCWorks, addressed the audience about some of the resources they offer for people seeking a job, education, or both.
The conversation between the audience and the panel often touched on mental health. Robert Covington had lamented early in the meeting that a mental health expert was not part of the panel.
Linda McPhatter has years of experience working with the corrections department and is currently has a position where she focuses on mental health.
“We have to look inside the homes for the behavior,” McPhatter said. “We’re talking about stuff after the fact. In prison, we’re just warehousing them.”
McPhatter also touched on the dangers of social media, which Bryan Stanback also discussed.
“Everything is negative surrounding these kids,” Stanback said with passion brimming in his voice. “These kids are seeing things we never saw growing up. It’s an uphill battle. I got an answer — the world don’t want an answer, because it’s people like me who have backgrounds and felonies.”
Stanback has not had any legal trouble in 16 years, and he said it’s individuals such as himself who are capable of enacting real change when they’re put in a position to do so. He lamented that too many children have pipe dreams of professional sports and that too many women are becoming grandmothers in their 30’s.
“These kids feel like it’s them against the world,” Stanback said. “But it’s going to take the world to save them — but they don’t trust the world. I’m not proud of it, but these kids are going to look up to me before they look to anybody else.”
Orrick McDougald backed up Stanback’s statement.
“They want to see someone who has picked themself up, dusted themself off and made a name for themself after falling,” McDougal said, who than offered to lend his support to participate on any future committees stemming from this meeting.
Takeaways from the meeting
Tammy Ratliffe, a minister at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, said there were so many great organizations mentioned at the meeting, but many people did not know how to get involved. Richmond County organizations that were mentioned included the Richmond County Partnership for Children, Phoenix Enrichment Program at the Leak Street Cultural Center, the NC Works Career Center and the newly-formed Diamond Crew at Richmond Senior High School.
Many people in the audience also wanted more information about how to attend various city and county board meetings.
“Is there anyway we can come up with a way to circulate that information?” Ratliffe said. “I would love to participate, I just did not know that these things existed.”
Herring said the meeting shouldn’t end until a task force was established that could compile the various organizations that were brought up.
“I think it’s important that we have these programs put in some type of resource book,” Herring said. “Everybody has something to contribute. You may not be a great public speaker, but you may be a great organizer.”
Former Rockingham mayoral candidate Michael McRae floated the idea of a district-wide anonymous survey and mandatory parent-teacher conferences.
“It’s good to see a new work being started here at Providence Church,” McRae said in an email after the event. “In Rockingham, it is going to take more collaboration between our City Council and vulnerable communities most impacted by youth gun violence. Showing up matters.”
Lawrence Moore, a church member at Providence, said he wished that more children were at the meeting.
“I enjoyed the meeting, I just wish they had more of them,” Moore said. “We’re not a unit as we should be.”
One bright piece of news was shared by Gilliam and Bostic. On March 25, over 100 RCS students will have a field trip to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro — “It’s happening,” Gilliam said.
Toward the conclusion of the 2½ hour meeting, around 10 people had volunteered their contact information to form a group to discuss pathways forward from the meeting and transform talk into results. Herring said that they can look to the new year to take the next steps forward, before concluding with a prayer.
“You got to have people that are really willing to work to combat this situation,” McPhatter said. “Talk is good, but getting out there doing the work is what we need.”
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Reach Matthew Sasser at 910-817-2671 or [email protected]
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