This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.
“Thoughts and prayers” are no longer enough to protect children from gun violence,” says Durham Hillside High School Principal William Logan.
Gun violence proliferates, Logan said, because guns are too readily available, and lawmakers are unwilling to pass meaningful gun control laws.
“We can continue to send thoughts and prayers every time this happens and lament over the loss of any life, not just the life of a student, or we can make tough decisions and do what we need to do to get control of people who aren’t supposed to have guns in our community,” Logan said in a recent interview with Policy Watch.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be here from one day to the next”
The “this” that the soft-spoken, but stern school leader referred to is the senseless death of a 17-year-old Hillside High student who was shot and killed on the American Tobacco Trail near the high school on February 8. A 15-year-old was also shot and wounded during the attack but is expected to recover.
It has been a particularly tough couple of weeks for Logan and the Hillside family. The death of the 17-year-old unnamed student hit the campus hard. Students met with counselors virtually last week during what Logan described as a “wellness day.” Teachers met with the counselors and therapists face-to-face.
A shining light amid the darkness that always comes when a young life is taken has been Hillside’s drama students and dance company. The students have given several performances of an original play titled “State of Urgency” which takes on gun violence, police brutality, racism discrimination, poverty, and other social ills.
The play was well received Friday when it opened before an engaged audience of several hundred people that included lawmakers and local elected officials with the authority to make the kind of changes that the young performers demanded.
Qiyamah Hart, a Hillside senior and actor, said state officials and school leaders must work to make schools safe spaces for students.
“We witness this [violence, racism, social injustice] on a day-to-day basis and that is not normal,” Hart said shortly after Friday’s performance. “We normalize things that shouldn’t be normal. We normalize bringing guns to school, we normalize fighting, we normalize the wrong things in life.”
This month’s shooting death of a fellow senior “broke her heart,” Hart said.
“His parents had to bury him yesterday [February 16] and that was sad to see because he won’t get the opportunities that I’ll be getting—or supposed to be getting because I don’t know if I’m going to be here from one day to the next. I’m scared because I don’t know who is bringing a gun to school or who is ready to do what because of their mental instability.”
A plea for action
Hart’s fear has her willing to forgo some freedoms in exchange for school safety.
“We need more SROs [School Resource Officers] covering every entrance and I feel like it’s come down to us getting checked before coming into the school,” Hart said.
“State of Urgency” was written by retired Hillside drama director Wendell Tabb who said it was born out of the social unrest that has enveloped the nation as a result of police shootings of unarmed Black men and women and other social justice issues that has spurred the nation’s young people to take to the streets in protest.
“This play came out of so many social justice issues, more specifically police brutality, which led me to want to write about those issues,” Tabb said. “The kids are dealing with these social issues constantly, and it becomes easy for them to become immune to the violence.”
Tabb, who has taken Hillside acting troupes around the world, has big plans for the play. He wants to take it across the state and the nation so that young people can get the messages that he believes are important.
He also believes that it’s important that those messages are heard by the people in Raleigh who occupy seats of power.
“We want to get certain parts of “State of Urgency” in front of certain boards and task forces that are working to make communities better,” Tabb said. “It’s important to have students at the table when these conversations take place.”
Mixed signals from state officials?
Tabb appears to have a willing ally in Republican State Superintendent Catherine Truitt who attended Friday’s performance at Tabb’s invitation. The two met by chance last fall and have kept in touch.
Truitt invited the performers to Raleigh to have a conversation about gun violence and other difficult topics and to develop possible solutions.
“I have questions for you, and I know that you have answers,” Truitt said. “We will work to get that on the calendar as soon as possible.”
The death of the Hillside student and the Durham community’s response to it plays out while lawmakers in Raleigh spar over bills such as Senate Bill 41—a proposal sponsored by Republican lawmakers to roll back gun laws that critics contend creates loopholes for criminals, the mentally unstable, and domestic abusers to purchase handguns.
Most Democrats opposed the Republican-sponsored bills.
“North Carolina’s law allows sheriffs to find these flags,” Sen. Natasha Marcus, (D-Mecklenburg) said in a recent statement. “and use their discretion to deny pistol purchase permits on these bases, providing stronger protections than the federal government system has. If we eliminate local background checks, we will be wiping out those protections and putting the public at greater risk.”
Meanwhile, supporters say the bills protect citizens’ rights.
“Our Second Amendment rights are non-negotiable,” Sen. Danny Earl Britt, Jr. (R-Robeson) said in a recent statement. “These are commonsense laws to ensure that the rights of law-abiding citizens are not being infringed.”
At Friday’s performance, Durham School Board member Natalie Beyer told the performers that the nation’s adults owe them an apology for not making the world safer.
“We know that we need commonsense gun laws and common-ense gun registration,” Beyer said. “We grew up in this country and in this community and we did not have to have lockdown drills and we didn’t have to crawl under our desks and pretend to be safe when there are mass weapons [of destruction] that we need to be legislating against and taking out of the hands of dangerous, mentally unstable people.”
Beyer noted SB 41, which she said would make North Carolina a more dangerous place if passed into law.
“It should not pass and the governor should veto it and the veto should hold,” Beyer said.
Before Friday’s performance, Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said more must be done to make communities safer for children.
“This play, ‘State of Urgency’ is our young people crying out for help,” Birkhead said. “We have to try everything.”
There were 43 people killed in Durham due to gun violence in 2022, most of them Black and Hispanic.
Birkhead said that abusive homes, depression, mental illness, and poverty all contribute to increases in gun violence.
“People are suffering, and I don’t think our kids have the skill sets to deal with conflict and learn how to solve those conflicts without picking up a weapon,” Birkhead said. “Back in the day, we’d fight, get over it, go play ball and everything was good.”
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