After three threats of mass violence against Cedar Ridge High School and one threat against East Chapel Hill High School since September, officials throughout Orange County say their highest priority remains ensuring the safety of their schools.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office arrested Alex Massey, 17, and Dylan George, 18, and charged both Cedar Ridge High School students for communicating threats of mass violence in the last couple months. There is a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the third threat against Cedar Ridge High School. The Chapel Hill Police Department arrested Nikolas Ellison-Scarborough with the same charge in relation to the threat against East Chapel Hill High School.
Jake Henry, chief operations officer for Orange County Schools, said the district is working with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and is taking the threats against Cedar Ridge seriously.
“We will continue to work hand-in-hand with law enforcement to help students and parents understand the consequences of school threats,” Henry said.
He said the district wanted to ensure families and students know about the social, emotional and mental support systems they have in place.
According to officials, any threat made against a school must be investigated and taken seriously. Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said the district is planning to send letters out from the superintendent to parents to let them know the severity of threats.
He emphasized that communication is an important part of preventing incidents. The letters will provide talking points for parents to use when speaking to their children about this topic. Nash said a lot of man-hours are used when a person makes a threat, and students need to understand this.
“When somebody makes a threat, whether it is something like, ‘I’m going to beat you up on the playground,’ or something scribbled on a bathroom wall, it doesn’t matter,” Nash said. “We have to then do a full-blown investigation.”
Alicia Stemper, director of public information for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, also said any threat made has to be fully investigated, and additional deputies are sent to the school throughout the day to offer more support. Stemper said there has to be a balance in the visibility of police officers in schools, so students feel safe but not alarmed by the police presence.
“Maybe you feel safe, but maybe you feel unsafe,” Stemper said. “You want the safety, but you don’t want to increase anxiety.”
Stemper said communicating threats of violence is a Class H felony, and this law is relatively new. She said previously existing laws for threats were not adequate, because they did not anticipate a school shooting or mass violence type of scenario.
Both districts have policies and systems in place to help students in need that are designed to prevent and respond to a crisis. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools outlines four areas of focus to ensure safety: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Each area of focus has a number of items and programs, such as anti-bullying programs and support for mental health, that are in place as support for students and families.
“Kids do talk and do tell people that they have a plan, or that they are going to do things,” said Scarlett Steinert, the director of school safety for CHCCS. “So proactively, we have lots of things in place in this district to prevent those things from happening.”
According to the Orange County School District's website, they conduct regular training with administrators and have regular drills, including lockdown drills, with students and staff to ensure preparedness. OCS also works with various law enforcement agencies and first responders to stay up-to-date in their training and knowledge.
“At a minimum, safety plans and facilities are reviewed on an annual basis,” Henry said. “However, procedures are in place to proactively respond to safety concerns as needed throughout the school year.”
Officials said they want the community to know they are doing all they can to prevent an incident of mass violence. They said there are various ways in which parents, students and members of the community can help.
Stemper explained that if someone is concerned, they can call 911. She said the process of an investigation can always start there. CHCCS has a tip line on its website that can be used to report bullying, harassment or any other safety concerns.
Henry said he encourages any safety concerns to be reported to school officials.
"It is important for families to encourage students to talk to them about any concerns they may have and to report concerns to school officials as well," he said. "It is also important for parents to reinforce that schools are a safe place to be and to remind students of all the supports that are available to them."
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