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Posts published by “Michaela Towfighi”

Much more needed to make classrooms safe for everyone, Durham teachers say

Rather than creating lesson plans and classroom decorations this summer, Durham teacher Millie Rosen drafted her will.

On Jul. 14 when Gov. Roy Cooper recommended schools return for modified in-person learning, she prepared to enter a battle with no armor. 

Durham Public Schools has since announced the first nine weeks of the school year, which starts Aug. 17, will be online. 

Although online learning will spare trips to school for now, that is a temporary solution. And teachers across the country are voicing concerns about safety. Educators demonstrated outside Boston City Hall against schools reopening in person this week. 

Many Durham public school teachers say deciding whether to return to classrooms during the pandemic is now a choice between keeping their jobs or protecting their health. They worry it would be only a matter of time before they or their students contract the virus.

Rosen has one main criterion for returning in person, whether that be in October or next year: strong evidence that she, her colleagues and her students will be kept safe.  

“It would be about the chances of me, my co-workers and my kids dying,” said Rosen, who teaches seventh-grade math at Durham School of the Arts.  

Hesitation to return 

Nearly 47% of Durham’s public school teachers who responded to a survey conducted through June said that they would prefer online teaching, according to the Durham Association of Educators, an affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators.  

Prior to the district’s announcement of its school reopening plan, the DAE held a Zoom town hall on July 15 with the DPS administration, asking district staff to answer over 400 questions from employees. 

“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote about the decision to start the school year online. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.”

Many teachers are concerned that come October, when the district is expected to reevaluate, they still won’t have nearly enough funding and resources to safely teach in classrooms.  

Durham public schools have seen a continuous decline in state funding for years, district officials say. The district has received $19 million less from the state each year than they did in 2009 when dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation, according to the proposed school budget for 2020-2021

Due to COVID-19 budget cuts, the county gave DPS just over $5 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

As a result, they rely heavily on local fundraising, such as money raised by the DPS Foundation, which was founded in 2018.

At Riverside High School, 2019 DPS Teacher of the Year Mika Twietmeyer draws the line when a lack of resources could cost herself or her students their lives.

“Teachers are always asked to do more with less, and we will because we understand that we have to,” said Twietmeyer, who teaches science. “But when there’s risks that people are going to die… it’s really highlighting some of these concerns and highlighting how unfunded the public schools are.”

Teaching from afar 

In addition to their concerns about whether classroom teaching will be safe, teachers say executing online learning will not be an easy feat. Especially with students’ unequal access to reliable internet or adequate space at home. 

Twietmeyer is now faced with the challenge of converting her science classroom to an online format. Students learn by doing in her classroom, she said, with labs an integral part of her lesson plan. This semester they will have to watch these experiments on Chromebook screens. 

“We’ve talked about filming ourselves doing the activities and creating modules,” Twietmeyer said. “But all of those take time and training that we really haven’t had or have available to us.” 

Twietmeyer wonders how her partner, a photography teacher at Riverside, will teach lessons normally given in a darkroom, online. Together, they will navigate both teaching online under the same roof. 

Durham public school teachers have little experience teaching online. When the district closed schools in March, all required instruction ended.

For middle school, Rosen said integrating social skills and other learning beyond her curriculum will be a challenge from a distance. 

“With kids because there’s so much there’s so much learning that you do in middle school in terms of learning more subtle things about being in relation to other people,” she said. 

Teachers will still be required to follow the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction state standards for the learning students must complete during a course, despite the unprecedented circumstances. 

Twietmeyer said she wants to wait before rushing into her lesson plans. Instead she wants to make sure her students are comfortable navigating online learning and build relationships  before she starts with her content. 

“The really challenging part, of course, starting virtually is building those relationships through a screen,” she said. “It takes away from the craft and the art of the teaching profession, which we all love.”

Organizing for a safe return 

There’s no way to know what the COVID-19 rates will look like nine weeks after the school year begins. However cases continue to rise in Durham with 5,514 cases as of Sunday, according to Durham County Department of Public Health.  

Regardless of the case count, Michelle Burton, the president of DAE and a library media specialist at Spring Valley Elementary, is looking to state legislators to ensure that schools have adequate funding to follow the 31 Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for a safe re-opening.

The first step for her is ensuring state legislators expand COVID-19 relief funding for schools. 

“We need to put pressure on [state legislators] to put something forward to give us the funding that we need during COVID and keep people safe,” she said. “The resources that they have allocated or voted on is not enough.”

In 2019, North Carolina was one of the two states with the lowest union membership rates, according to the US Department of Labor. And public school teachers in North Carolina are not allowed to have a collective bargaining agreement to negotiate employment contracts.

The NCAE does advocate for teachers here, however. This month members are petitioning the General Assembly, asking members to maintain the same level of funding and staffing from the 2019-2020 school year for the upcoming year. 

NCAE also wants legislators to fund all state Department of Health and Human Services requirements for reopening schools. These include creating six-foot markings on floors for social distancing  and frequently disinfecting all surfaces, on busses too.

They also want decision makers to meet with public school employees to allow for their input in reopening discussions.

The petition, which NCAE is still circulating for signatures, has over 16,000 so far. 

Some needs are non-negotiable items for Burton, she said. They include a nurse in every school building, funding for plexiglass for high contact areas, like reception desks, masks, and cleaning supplies. 

But funding for more nurses is beyond Durham Public School’s budget for next year, Mubenga said during the town hall meeting. Nurses will be available via telehealth services for schools without, according to Nakia Hardy, the district’s deputy superintendent of academic services. 

Following state and federal guidelines still may not be enough to reopen schools safely, many school officials fear. In Arizona, three teachers taught summer school online from the same classroom, following all public health recommendations. All three fell ill with COVID-19 and one died. 

Despite their many fears, some educators say ongoing discussions and debates are showing the power their public pressure can have on decision-making.

 “We have to unite and organize to win the schools and communities that we all deserve,” DAE vice president Turquoise LeJeune Parker said during the town hall.

The more voices in this conversation the better, including student voices, said Twietmeyer.

“We hear a lot of the argument of going back to school because it’s for the students behalf. But we want to make sure that if we’re doing things on their behalf, that they’re a part of some of those decisions,” she said.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: With school reopening decisions happening across the nation, Jordan High School educators shared a clear message: “Our safety, our say”. Photo courtesy of Carlos Pérez

Durham schools will be online only until October

When Durham Public School students resume school on Aug. 17, there will be no bus rides or hallway chats about summer. Instead, over 32,000 students will open Chromebooks and tune into online learning at home. 

The first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year school will be online, Board of Education members voted unanimously on Thursday.

Schools statewide are free to open with a combination of online and in-person learning, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday. However, after teachers voiced concerns about the safety of returning to school during the pandemic, Durham will wait to bring students and over 5,000 staff to school buildings. 

“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote in an online statement announcing reopening plans. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.

Although online instruction is the safest option, the district will face two major hurdles in teaching children at home: ensuring online access for all students and providing food. In the Durham school district, 64% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. 

To address the digital divide, Board of Education members purchased over 20,000 Chromebooks for students in May. Next, they must find ways to ensure all students and teachers have internet access through the distribution of hotspots.

School reopening plans have been evolving since fears about spreading COVID-19 illness abruptly shut Durham school building doors on March 13. All mandatory studies ended then too. 

Cooper had asked school districts to develop three separate plans for re-entry following varying guidelines. Plan A allowed schools to reopen at regular capacity with minimal social distancing enforced. Plan B called for a limited reopening, where schools could operate at 50% capacity to enforce social distancing. Under Plan C, all instruction is online. 

Durham’s Spark Reopening Task Force, a group of administrators and teachers working on plans to reopen schools, had recommended a very specific Plan B. If selected, it should include in-person instruction for kindergarten through eighth grade students, but online instructions for high school students, members said.

To ensure the space needed for social distancing, high schools would house some K-8 classes because they are bigger than elementary and middle schools. If students did not feel safe coming to school, they would have the option to stay home and enroll in Ignite Online Academy, the district’s new online school platform.

 School board members approved this option unanimously on June 25. 

Teachers were not given the same flexibility as students. Although some teachers would teach online at Ignite, not all could. 

A survey the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) conducted through May and June drew responses from 34% of teachers. Among that group, 46.8% indicated that they would prefer to teach online. 

The DAE, an educators’ advocacy organization, published a statement on July 13 asking for more funding to make in-person instruction safer so that educators would not have to choose between their health and their jobs. 

“So far, the state and federal governments have not provided public schools with the human or capital resources we would need to ensure a safe and equitable return,” the statement says. “We are not prepared to bury our students or colleagues.”

DAE also hosted a virtual town hall discussion with Mubenga on Wednesday. Over 100 educators joined the Zoom meeting, with over 400 questions submitted ahead of time. 

In the meeting, Mubenga’s message was clear. He and his staff were trying their best to meet teachers’ requests for a safe, in-person reopening. However, the district does not have the money it needs to properly do so, he said.

Although the district could provide sanitizer for each room, for example, there is not enough funding to hire additional nurses. Instead, schools would call nurses via a telehealth service if someone in the building needed medical attention.  

During the town hall Arsai Adkins, assistant superintendent for human resources, announced 3,822 students had enrolled for Ignite, the online program. Adkins also reported that 331 teachers submitted accommodations requests, with 232 of those requests relating to personal or family underlying health conditions. 

If schools reopen for in-person learning in October, students will have the ability to continue learning online if they choose. The date that could happen is not yet clear.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: Durham public schools teachers, staff and students will remain apart at the start of the school year, just like they did last spring. File photo by Henry Haggart 

Student pushed to change policing in Durham schools before street protests swelled

Aissa Dearing remembers a talk on gang violence prevention in her seventh-grade health class.

This is how gangs recruit students, school security and police officers told her and classmates at Lucas Middle School in northern Durham County. This is how long you will spend in jail if you sell Drug X, they said. Drug Y brings a longer sentence.

Dearing, a recent graduate of JD Clement Early College, wonders why the encounter wasn’t designed to inspire rather than promote fear. Say if a member of Project BUILD, a gang intervention program, talked to students. Or if her class was brought to a career fair to help motivate them at school. 

“Wouldn’t that be more substantive than police officers talking to you about crime?” Dearing asked during an interview. 

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, national conversations about police aggression, funding and training are everywhere. Yet, these are not new concerns for Dearing. 

The 18-year-old has been pushing Durham Public Schools to rethink the need to employ law enforcement officers in public schools. It started when she and other students published a list of proposed improvements in 2019. With petitions and protest, recently she has promoted a complete abolition of school resource officers (SROs).

Working for change

During her junior year at her magnet high school, Dearing joined the Youth Justice Project. That’s a Southern Coalition for Social Justice initiative that promotes equity for young people in education and the criminal justice system. 

Through the Youth Justice Project, she and others invited students, administrators and SROs to a town hall forum on the topic of school safety in April 2019 at the W.G. Pearson Center. They named the forum with the acronym SRO, but instead it stood for “Students Reaching Out.”

The risk of over-aggressive policing is not an abstract issue for Dearing. SROs were not assigned to her high school, which is located on the campus of North Carolina Central University. But Dearing recalls watching some of these officers break up fights between students during football games at Hillside and Riverside high schools. Altercations sometimes ended with students escorted to the back of a patrol car or handcuffed at the scene, she said. 

In Durham, 27 sheriff deputies work in middle and high schools in the district. The county spent $2.7 million dollars to fund 30 officers, three of which are not assigned to specific schools in the 2019-2020 budget, with the same amount recommended for 2020-2021

The officers, who are armed, are there to enforce the law, provide delinquency prevention resources, and offer law-related guidance and counseling to students, according to Durham Public Schools.

After the town hall forum, the Youth Justice Project published a list of recommendations for school board members to consider. Items included increased transparency through a public data report about what SROs respond to, a student-friendly complaint process to report any concerns regarding SROs, and a redefined outline of what types of incidents a SRO should be involved in. 

 After seeing little change, Dearing has a new request. 

“A year later, now we’re asking for just a complete defunding and end of relationship with the sheriff’s department,” she said. 

From reform to abolition

Elijah King, a recent Riverside High School graduate, is Dearing’s  partner-in-action and biggest advocate. The pair met while working with Made in Durham, a non-profit that helps students enter the workforce after school.

In their collaborations, Dearing is Steve Jobs with big-picture ideas, while he is Steve Wozniak, fine tuning the details for operation, King says. 

Aissa Dearing holds an umbrella over the head of fellow student activist Elijah King at a press conference they staged at last week. 9th Street Journal Photo by Henry Haggart

One big-picture action Dearing took recently was circulating a petition addressed to Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee on Instagram. It asked Durham residents to sign in support of removing SROs from all schools and attracted over 2,000 likes and 3,000 comments from people ranging from Duke University students to Durham Public School parents. 

“She’s a leader. She’s a great speaker. She knows all about how teamwork makes the dream work. She is ambitious. And that’s why I like working with her,” King said.

To promote her Instagram request, Dearing and others solicited comments supporting removing SROs ahead of the Board of Education work session on June 10. That generated 256 pages of written comments.  

In response to all of this, Durham Public Schools published a statement on its website endorsing its SRO program and agreeing to conduct the impact assessment of the program by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, as the Youth Justice Project had requested last year.

“We would be happy to participate in a community forum to learn from our stakeholders and develop solutions to ensure the safety and security of our students,” the statement reads.

As the statement did not clarify who are stakeholders, Dearing, King, and others organized a  “March for Black Students” on June 13 to show them. 

Organizing a march in a pandemic is not an easy feat. Aside from the tasks of contacting de-escalators, people assigned to diffuse any conflict, and medics to attend, she and co-organizers ensured people wore masks and used hand sanitizer.  

Dearing led marchers half a mile from DPS headquarters to the sheriff’s department in a yellow shirt that read “free Black mamas” with a patterned fabric mask on. When holding the microphone to speak to the crowd, she, and other speakers wore a blue plastic glove as a cautionary measure.

Dearing is not letting adults dominate conversation about school policy. Instead, she is putting student voices at the center of her actions, said Katherine Shor, a former youth engagement coordinator at Made in Durham and a mentor to Dearing.  

“To have youth be the leaders, the voices and the stakeholders of what happens in their schools that is a policy planning, organizing 101,” Shor said.

Lee said he hears Dearing’s requests. However, he said, he needs to better understand alternatives for SROs before he is willing to remove them from schools. 

Although SROs mainly interact with students, they also handle external threats to the school, Lee stressed. That can range from disruptions related to parents’ custody battles over students or trespassers on school campuses. 

Lee emphasized SROs protect not only 33,526 students in all Durham public schools but also 5,003 employees on school campuses. He fears if he cut SROs, he may have employees who will quit, he said.

“I need solutions to help assure the security of those 38,000 people in our buildings every day before I can make any kind of a decision,” he said. 

Dearing and King are working on suggestions for SRO alternatives, which will include having people at schools trained in conflict resolution responses such as de-escalation and restorative justice. Next steps will include a youth summit to collect more student ideas. After that they will present a proposal to the county, the sheriff’s department and school board that King has been compiling. 

The pair will keep working to build as much support as they can around their proposal before they both head separate ways in the fall. Dearing will enroll at Howard University; King will enter the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

“I can speak as a former student, but now I kind of have to take a step back and pass the baton,” she said.

9th Street Journal reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

Photo at top: Aissa Dearing and Elijah King led a “March for Black Students” on June 13. Photo courtesy of Abraham Gonzalez

Schools spend $7.8 million to gear up for digital learning

When the school day ended on March 13, Durham teachers and staff packed their bags, turned off lights and locked doors as if it was any other weekend.

Instead, it was an unplanned last day of school for students, one without celebrations or yearbook handouts. Efforts to control the spread of coronavirus shut down Durham’s public schools for the rest of the year.

Although schools mailed or handed out supplemental learning packets to students, none of the work within was required. Final grades were awarded based on the coursework finished before March 13.

Uncertain what the start of the new school year will look like, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga knows one thing for sure: Every student will participate in online learning. The district has purchased 20,016 new Chromebooks to make this goal possible. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that we have to aggressively attack the digital divide in our community,” Mubenga said in a press release

Finding ways to expand access to digital learning is not a new conversation in the district. Durham has lagged slightly behind the average performance of North Carolina public schools on its supply of digital devices.

A 2018-2019 state report card counted one digital device per 1.1 students in Durham schools, compared to a state average of one device per 0.9 students. The district’s five-year strategic plan calls for 100 percent of all “teachers, leaders, and staff” to use technology to advance student learning by 2023.  

When schools closed due to coronavirus, that expedited the conversation to find a way to make sure every student in grades K-12 had access to a school computer. 

The price tag to purchase the Chromebooks and charging carts is $7,848,357. Board of Education members authorized these purchases unanimously at an emergency meeting on May 28. 

Staff handed out learning packets and food at Easley Elementary School not long after Durham schools abruptly shut down in March. Photo by Corey Pilson

The first step was buying the devices. The second challenge will be ensuring that all students can connect to the internet at school and at home. The scale of the digital divide in Durham is significant, and one that the school district hopes to not tackle alone.

Board members will look to the county for assistance in what they estimate will be an additional $3 million project.

DPS will also be looking to the public to help cover some costs. The DPS Foundation will announce a campaign shortly to raise money for implementing a curriculum with the devices.

Without instruction for parents and students, devices serve no purpose, said Magan Gonzales-Smith, executive director of the foundation, a nonprofit that supports DPS. 

“Realizing digital equity for students goes beyond providing everyone with a device and internet, we must think about the holistic picture,” she said.

That includes training teachers, providing tech support to students and families, and reinforcing learning conditions in homes, Gonzales-Smith said. Another factor to consider is support for non-English speaking students. 

The Chromebook order needed to be placed before June 1 to ensure they arrive before the start of the 2020-21 school year, which is so far scheduled for August 3. Reserve funds were used to make the purchase. 

The district will receive $11.8 million from the federal CARES Act, according to Mubenga’s comments in the May 28 meeting, to partially fund the project. When DPS receives the CARES funding, it will replenish the reserves spent. 

The number of Chromebooks needed at schools varies, Benjamin Brown, executive director of IT for DPS, said at the meeting. The School for Creative Studies, a magnet school in northeast Durham, and the City of Medicine Academy, a magnet school near Duke Regional Hospital, have indicated they will not need any new purchases.

Six schools, however, will need over 1,000 new Chromebooks each. That includes C.E. Jordan High School, Durham School of the Arts, Hillside High School, Northern High School, Riverside High School and Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.  

The district purchased all Chromebooks from Lenovo Solutions for $360.75 each and 566 laptop charging carts from CDWG for $1,128 per cart. 

The Chromebooks are portable laptops with a touch screen. While kindergarten students might be learning to write their names on touchscreens, seniors might be typing lab reports on keyboards. 

In addition to discussing broadband access, board members expect to discuss implementing systems for teaching online later this month.

At top: After Durham schools closed in March, teachers and staff reached out to students they were suddenly separated from where they could. Photo by Henry Haggart  

With domestic violence uptick during pandemic, Durham shelter adjusts services

Stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic present a dangerous reality for victims of domestic violence: a government mandate to remain at home, in an isolated space, with their abuser. 

Across the country, there has been an uptick in domestic violence cases, and Durham is no different. According to Beth Moracco, a researcher at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, there have been more domestic violence calls in recent weeks and the violence reported is more severe than usual.

Stephanie Satkowiak, a domestic violence specialist in the North Carolina Judicial Branch, echoed this. 

“What I am seeing, which is horribly alarming, is the uptick in the number of domestic violence homicides or attempted homicides,” she said in an email. 

Satkowiak pointed to an example in Johnston County. The last domestic violence-related homicide there was in 2012, but in the past month, there have been two incidents: a homicide and a standoff with the police

Domestic violence victims are exempted from both Durham’s stay-at-home order and the statewide stay-at-home order. The Durham order has been in place for nearly a month, and Mayor Steve Schewel has encouraged people experiencing domestic violence to seek resources and shelter. It’s one of several steps the local government and non-profit groups are taking to protect a highly vulnerable group of people at a time when many in-person services are on hold. 

“Under the stay at home order we are all feeling increasingly isolated, and survivors are often isolated to begin with,” Moracco said. She added that the most important thing to help people is “being able to break that isolation and let survivors know that resources are still available and support is still available.” 

Moracco said she has been impressed with the online resources available to support victims. One benefit of the Durham County court system is the ability to file a domestic violence protective order online, a program that has been in place since 2017. Protective orders require perpetrators to stay away from victims or risk being arrested by law enforcement. 

Satkowiak said that across the state, agencies in 14 counties that allow online filings have reported fewer domestic violence protective orders in recent weeks.

“These stay at home orders … restrict movement for victims of violence and prevent them from being able to seek assistance,” she said. “It’s too complicated at some point for them to reach out for help. So that is alarming.”

The orders are still being processed at the Durham County Courthouse, according to a press release from the Crisis Response Center, Durham County District Attorney’s Office and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office on March 26. 

“We are still here, we are still prosecuting cases and we will be there to help you during this time,” said District Attorney Santana Deberry in a video statement. 

How Durham’s shelter is responding

 The Durham Crisis Response Center is the only domestic violence shelter in the city. Its emergency shelter, which has 17 beds, remains open. 

Executive Director Kent Wallace-Meggs said residents and employees are following social distancing protocols. The center also has a temporary agreement with some hotels in Durham for people to stay, though funds to support the program are limited, Wallace-Meggs said.

The center has moved quickly to offer support online and via phone. Employees and volunteers are running the 24-help hotline remotely from their homes. In 2019, the hotline received 5,970 calls. Wallace-Meggs did not provide the number of calls so far this year or during the pandemic. 

The Durham Crisis Response Center has moved some of its services remote or online during the pandemic. Photo by Corey Pilson

Counseling sessions are being held remotely and the center is not taking walk-ins for other services like legal advocacy, assistance with filing or support groups until further notice. 

Wallace-Meggs said that those experiencing domestic violence are particularly vulnerable because the pandemic presents an opportunity for their perpetrator to manipulate their situation. 

“Abuse is all about control,” he said. “During this outbreak, the abuser can use it as a form of control, keeping hand sanitizer away from the person and sharing information with them and filtering the information that they are receiving.” 

Moracco said she is especially concerned about more vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities or undocumented individuals. 

She said any changes in circumstance during the pandemic have implications for domestic violence survivors. 

Satkowiak shares similar concerns. “Mix in unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues, stress, depression, anxiety, and you have the perfect toxic cocktail for violence,” she said. 

One safety tactic to help people who may be under strict surveillance by an abuser is to develop a signal to friends or neighbors that indicates they need help. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines different forms of home safety planning, like a code word with children to instruct them to call for help. Wallace-Meggs said the volunteers on the Durham Crisis Response Center hotline can help callers develop individual home safety plans. 

If an individual at a hospital is identified as a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence, the center typically sends an advocate to the hospital to meet with the individual. Wallace-Meggs is working with hospitals to offer this service over the phone or through an online video chat. 

Online services offer more opportunities for outreach, as well. Through online counselling, support groups and other resources, Moracco has seen an increase in accessibility for people who have restricted access to transportation or live far from service providers.

She said  the pandemic highlights the need for long-term planning for domestic violence survivors during future pandemics or natural disasters. 

Despite the many challenges, Moracco said she has been inspired by the resources made available in Durham and quick plans to adapt services. “What’s been really encouraging to see,” she said, “is how quickly and how well communities have responded to the changing situation.”

 If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the Durham Crisis Center’s 24-hour helpline at 919-403-6562 (for Spanish: 919-519-3735). For more North Carolina resources, visit the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence website

The National Domestic Violence 24-hour hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Their website also offers a 24-hour online chat.

Top photo: The Durham Crisis Response Center, which supports those experiencing domestic violence. Photo by Corey Pilson

What the stay-at-home order means for the homeless

On March 24, Mayor Steve Schewel ordered Durham residents to stay at home as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But many people in the city do not have homes to go to. 

The stay-at-home order exempts homeless people, and they are being encouraged by ministries, advocates and government officials to seek shelter. Organizations that serve the homeless are working to establish protocol for those infected by the coronavirus. As of Friday, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Durham’s shelters.

The city and county departments and external services providers are in ongoing communication to establish “the screening, treatment, and housing protocol for the homeless population,” Colin Davis, manager for homeless systems for the City of Durham Community Development Department, explained in an email. 

Davis said services for the homeless are provided through the Durham Continuum of Care, a group of organizations and government agencies that works together to end homelessness and coordinates housing for the City of Durham and Durham County. The community development department is the lead agency for the group. 

There are two emergency homeless shelters in the city: Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and a small number of families, and Families Moving Forward, which focuses on shelter for families, according to Davis. 

There are not enough beds available for everyone who is experiencing homelessness in Durham, and beds are allotted in accordance with shelter’s admission policies, Davis said. The Urban Ministries of Durham has 149 beds total with an additional 30 overflow cots available and Families Moving Forward houses 21 families at a time.  

The Urban Ministries of Durham has restricted access to its campus because of the mayor’s order, which means people who do not live in the shelter can only come for food pick-up. All free meal services are now served in to-go packaging. Donations, such as the organization’s clothing closet, are suspended and volunteer staff is limited. 

Executive director Sheldon Mitchell emphasized that this is a big change for Urban Ministries of Durham, since over 100 people who do not reside on the campus typically come each day for meal services. 

The Urban Ministries of Durham has also created an Amazon wishlist to help stock items. According to their website, they are struggling to find thermometers, bottled water, Clorox bleach, spray disinfectant and hand sanitizer.  

“We have looked at trying to focus on the basic services for the residents we have on campus at this point,” said Mitchell. 

The shelter isn’t at maximum capacity yet, Mitchell said, but staff and residents are practicing social distancing. The city and county staff, as well as the Durham Emergency Communications Center, have been in discussion about where to relocate individuals to better alleviate the crowded space.  

Schewel said in his address that if a homeless person were to contract COVID-19, the city would work to create a facility where affected people could self-quarantine. He didn’t offer details about what that might look like. In San Francisco, homeless people have moved into vacant hotel rooms after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Mitchell has been in communication with city and county staff for at least two weeks to arrange plans for the homeless community during the virus outbreak. However, that process is challenging because of a malware attack on the city and county IT systems earlier in March that left some employees with limited email and phone capacities. 

More services are being organized and Mitchell has been pleased with support, but there’s been a delay in making plans for the homeless community, which Mitchell said is “one of the more vulnerable populations in this whole scenario.” 

“It is definitely important when we do have to make plans to address the community crisis such as this,” he said “that we do remember those who already have less resources or a lesser ability to react and respond.” 

Top photo: The Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and some families experiencing homelessness. Photo by Corey Pilson

He won with People’s Alliance support, then lost without it

Early this month, the local People’s Alliance political action committee once again displayed its influence on Durham elections.

By a wide margin, voters selected first-time candidate Alexandra Valladares, who was endorsed by the political action committee, to win an at-large seat on Durham’s Board of Education on March 3. 

Valladares beat incumbent Steven Unruhe, who Mayor Steve Schewel, former Mayor Bill Bell, fellow school board members and the Durham Association of Educators all endorsed. The left-leaning People’s Alliance supported him in 2016 but not this year, despite wide appreciation for his contributions to the school board.

“He is among the finest teachers in the memory of Durham’s public school system. And he was an excellent school board member,” said Tom Miller, a coordinator for People’s Alliance.

Valladares, an educator and high-profile volunteer leader in the schools, was the better candidate partly because the school board lacked a Latinx member, Miller said. Durham Public Schools identifies more than 32% of its students as “Hispanic/Latino.”

“It is a reasonable expectation, where an excellent candidate is available, to have the school board reflect, at least in one member, that makeup of the constituency,” he said.

Valladares, a Durham Public Schools graduate and a DPS parent, has worked with BOOST, a Duke University program that encourages middle school students to pursue training in science and medicine. She has led multiple district projects as a volunteer, including convening a Superintendent-Parent Forum series for Latinx families.

A former resident of McDougald Terrace, a musician, and a Human Relations Commission member, Valladares emphasized the need for Latinx leadership during her campaign for the seat.

“Ya es Hora!,” was one of her campaign slogans. In English that means “It is time!

Unruhe, a national-award winning educator, taught at Northern and Riverside high schools over 29 years. During four years on the board, he helped revise the budget to increase funding for the construction of new two schools, among other accomplishments.  

Both competed for the People’s Alliance endorsement, one of many decided during the PAC’s Jan. 14 meeting, where over 600 members were present.

This year, the decision about who to endorse for the at-large school board seat was difficult for PAC members, Miller said. 

Steven Unruhe logged many high-profile endorsements during his re-election campaign, but the People’s Alliance backed Alexandra Alladares this time.

Valladares did not comment for this article, despite multiple requests for an interview. But Unruhe was frank in his disappointment in the close nominating vote he lost. “I have serious reservations about this process because the vote in endorsing was 51% to 49%. That somehow translated in the minds of People’s Alliance organization into a 100% endorsement of my opponent,” Unruhe said. 

Disagreement over who should win on March 3 bloomed on social media after the endorsement vote. 

On Jan. 27, a letter posted on a Facebook account named Miel Etant Possum asked alliance members to support Unruhe, despite him losing PA’s endorsement. 

While it is rare for many of us to support a candidate outside of the PA endorsements, we feel in this case that Steve is a much stronger candidate,” the letter said. “We believe Steve represents the values that are at the heart of the PA and a progressive Durham.”

The letter, no longer public, was signed by 110 people. 

On Feb. 1 Ronda Taylor Bullock, a scholar who works to reduce racism in schools, published a letter on Facebook promoting Valladares. She argued that there was a clear racial dimension to the school board race and that voting for Unruhe would support white supremacy in Durham. 

“I’m arguing that from a critical whiteness lens, this is indeed an act of upholding white supremacy,” the former Hillside High School teacher wrote. “There are currently zero Latinx board members and by supporting a white male, folks are saying this is OK for a district that’s 33% Latinx.

Her letter was signed by 167 people.

Unruhe said what he perceived as “the nastiness” of the campaign solidified his decision to not run for elected office again.

Miller acknowledged the divisiveness of the endorsement process and election in this school board race. The political landscape in Durham has shifted, he said. 

“Years and years ago, we chose progressive candidates to run against candidates being promoted by conservative organizations,” he said. 

The school board race, however, highlights how multiple progressive and qualified candidates are now running against each other which makes the People’s Alliance endorsement more challenging.

“To make it more difficult for our members to choose from among progressive candidates who are longstanding and effective and loved members of our own organization,” he said. 

However, Miller said he envisions that unity is ahead.  

“As difficult as this decision about this school board contest has been, moving forward, it’s going to be one People’s Alliance committed together to support progressive change,” he predicted.

Durham sheriff and state police use fake website to disrupt sex trafficking

Durham sheriff investigators want people to think twice before using the internet to buy sex at local hotels or anywhere else. 

To disrupt that trade, they set a trap early this month. Undercover investigators posed as local sex vendors online, posting fake ads on websites to draw buyers in. 

After men fell for the scheme, investigators arranged to meet each of them in a Durham hotel, where 18 men were arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution on Feb. 7.

That was a record number of such arrests in one day in Durham and one of many online operations intended to deter human trafficking and prostitution statewide.

Many groups are spreading word that many women in the sex trade are coerced into this work and need help. Source: UniteWomen.org

“We’re using all the resources that we can to look into these issues and figure out a way to stop them or slow them down,” said Capt. Jimmy Butler of the Durham County Sheriff Office’s criminal investigations division. 

After responding to online advertisements posted by undercover agents, suspects made arrangements to meet in a room at hotel investigators declined to name. The men expected to pay for sex but undercover investigators arrested them instead, said AnnMarie Breen, the sheriff’s public information officer. 

The ages of the men ranged from 21 to 64 years old. One third were from Durham, with the rest from elsewhere in the Triangle or beyond. Suspects were given a court date and released. 

Butler said there are no concerns of entrapment in these operations because investigators do not recruit people to do something they would not have done on their own. Instead, undercover officers wait for people to reach out.

The partly virtual raid was coordinated between the local sheriff’s office and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking unit. This was the first investigation of its kind for the Durham sheriff’s office.

Such operations against sex trafficking can take two approaches: demand reduction, such as the Durham action, and outreach to people trafficked into prostitution, said Carl Wall, special agent in charge of the SBI unit. 

In a demand-reduction operations, undercover agents pose online as sex sellers to arrest people attempting to solicit prostitution.  

In outreach operations, undercover agents pose as sex buyers. The goal is to rescue people, usually women, from sex traffickers who coerce them to work as prostitutes. 

Investigators are placed outside a meeting place to look for traffickers to arrest. Social service professionals go inside to meet the sex workers to offer help. Services may include temporary housing or assistance in returning to their families, Butler said. 

Throughout his 26-year career in law enforcement, Wall has never seen a more manipulative crime than human trafficking, he said.  

“Until this assignment, I had never seen the violence, both physical and mental, the sickness and the controlling that a trafficker has over a victim,” Wall testified before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security in 2019. 

North Carolina authorities solicit help to detect and disrupt sex trafficking via a confidential hotline. Source: NC Human Trafficking Commission

Wall is the only full time SBI agent who focuses on human trafficking. The SBI has 14 agents trained in investigating human trafficking assigned throughout the state. However, that is their secondary duty, meaning that each officer has a different primary responsibility, whether that be on narcotics or homicide teams, that is their main area of investigation. 

One of these agents is assigned to Durham County, with a primary focus on drug investigations. With that agent’s interest and relationship with the local sheriff’s office, the two agencies decided to conduct an investigation together, Wall said.

The tactic of using online websites and advertisements to catch traffickers is something that has been used in previous cases throughout the state.  

“In our society, everything’s online. So we utilize that for us to do our types of investigations. We’ll go online, whether we’re posting ads, as a decoy, undercover female, attracting the males, or as the males, you know, reaching out to the girls,” said Wall. 

Another tactic to fight human trafficking is through advertisements in liquor stores and other locations across the state. Posters feature a hotline number, 888-373-7888, where people can ask for help or share a tip.

“We would rather have 100 false tips than one missed tip,” Breen said. 

Unrelated to these operations work, Polaris, a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking, ranks states based on their criminal-record relief for trafficking survivors. North Carolina ranked 21 out of 40 states assessed.  

North Carolina has stricter laws that other states relating to the level of evidence people have to provide in court to show that they were victims of human trafficking, for example, Polaris found. The state also does not protect a victim’s confidentiality in court. 

Under existing state law, if a woman was charged as a prostitute, it is hard to expunge this criminal record, according to Wall. In North Carolina, one specialized court — in Cumberland County — focuses on human trafficking cases. 

However, Breen has noticed a cultural shift in the way law enforcement the court system and the public think about women working in the illegal sex trade in recent years. Rather than viewing them as criminals, people recognize many as victims

“That has that has really opened up the lines of communication and when people see things like the things that they are suspicious of, they’re more open to calling us now because the stigma has been lessened,” said Breen.

Correction: This story was modified to say undercover investigators posted fake ads, not websites, to pose as sex vendors online.

School assignment shifts, more changes ahead for Durham public schools

At 10 am at Creekside Elementary School cafeteria, one class begins to eat lunch as other students finish up their breakfast. 

At a school that is 200 students over capacity, the Creekside cafeteria cannot fit all students at once. So the lunch cycle starts early and continues in waves until the last sit-down at 12:40 pm.

To alleviate crowded hallways and trailer park classrooms, Durham Public Schools is redrawing the student boundary maps for Creekside and Githens Middle School to reduce how many children can enroll at each.

Lots of changes are brewing for Durham Public Schools this year and next. The district is addressing several core issues beyond overcrowding, including retaining more children in district schools, expanding access to programming and resources, and reducing class sizes.

Even though Durham County is growing — by an estimated  23,221 people from 2015 to 2020 —enrollment in district schools dropped by 698 students during that period. For one, families have more choices than ever. Parents can consider district, charter and private schools, among other options.

Along with student retention, district officials want to expand equity. In 2017 the Durham Public Schools Office of Equity Affairs opened with the mission to provide equal opportunity and experiences for all students. 

The Barbershop Talk Series program, where students, administrators and parents share observations about discrimination, is one way the district is bringing disparities to the forefront.

The wider goal is to balance school demographics to ensure that students of all races and income levels share the best of school resources, from lower teacher to student ratios to the length of school bus rides and classroom supplies.

Overcrowding at Creekside impacts all corners, from the cafeteria to art classrooms. Due to the large class sizes, students are no longer able to take two year-long art and music classes. Instead, the subjects are taught in one course, said Rhonda Woodell, the Creekside PTA president. 

In the parking lot, two fourth-grade classes and all fifth-grade classes meet in trailer park classrooms. Creekside also faces a challenge each year to balance the student-to-teacher ratio per grade. Some years, four first-grade teachers are needed, while other years it could be six. 

“It’s been a chess game every year for administration,” said Woodellt. 

Source: Durham Public Schools

Boundary reassignment sounds like a simple solution, but it is a puzzle with complex pieces. Multiple factors get considered in all this planning: student enrollment, age and capacity of schools, driving distance to school, and the overarching emphasis on equity, Palmer said. 

“It’s an operation research riddle,”  he said. 

Palmer, alongside Julius Monk, chief operating officer for the district, presented their boundary change proposal for Creekside and Githens to the Durham School Board in October. Board members approved boundary shifts with a 4-3 vote in November.  

To reduce enrollment at Creekside, the change will be pretty straightforward. The Parkwood Elementary School boundary will expand to accommodate more students. Families who live east of the intersection of Scott King and Herndon Road will now send their children to Parkwood instead of Creekside, which will save driving time for some. 

Change at Githens requires increasing the student enrollment boundary for Brogden Middle School, which is more complex than it sounds. Six elementary schools feed into Githens and the district is considering three possible adjustments.

Ultimately the number of elementary schools that feed into Brogden will increase from three to five. The number of elementary schools that feed into Githens will decrease from six to four. 

State mandates regarding class sizes in North Carolina schools makes school boundary changes more urgent.  A law passed in March 2018 has begun to reduce the average size and maximum capacity of K-3 classrooms over four years.  

For the 2020-2021 school year, the average class size should be 18 students per teacher, with classrooms capped at 21 students. 

That further complicates the planning process, Palmer said. “It becomes what we call a tri-level optimization. So we have to first fit the kids in the classroom, then we have to fit the classroom in the school,” he said. 

Throughout the fall, DPS invited parents to Board of Education meetings and solicited feedback via surveys regarding the coming changes. Not all parents agreed with the shifts, but many recognized the complex challenges. 

With plans for the construction of a new elementary school within the next few years, some parents have voiced concerns that their children could be reassigned multiple times while in elementary school. 

At a public hearing in November, parent Jessica Simo asked why her children may have to switch from Creekside to Parkwood to a new school set to open within the next few years. 

“This proposed plan to redistrict around 50 families seems like putting a Band-aid on an open wound for overcrowding,” she said, adding that it “might not accomplish that much other than upsetting a group of families.”

The reassignment project is a small piece in a larger puzzle and the district is doing its best to meet everyone’s needs, Palmer said.

“If you’re looking at Mount Everest, you have to have base camps as you work your way up the mountain,” he said. 

At top: Pascal Mubenga, Durham schools superintendent, has met with staff, teachers and community members  to discuss overcrowding, student assignments and school boundaries. One event occurred at Lakewood Elementary School last fall. Photo by Durham Public Schools

Tragic meets festive: Memorial to hundreds lost to gun violence joins Durham holiday parade

Sidney Brodie holds his iPhone to his mouth. “What is 103 times 8 minus 1?,” he asks.

“823,” Siri answers. 

Brodie and helpers have sewn 823 cloth squares onto his Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Each name, written in puffy paint, belongs to a person killed in Durham since 1994.

The Durham native and artist keeps track of the location of each name in a digital catalog. When asked for a number, he multiplies quilt columns by rows, subtracting any empty spots. 

“What is six times eight minus three?” he asks. “45,” the phone replies. 

Brodie pauses for a moment, sighs and locks his phone. So far this year he added 45 new names to the quilt. 

On Saturday Brodie’s quilt will appear at an unlikely place: the Durham Holiday Parade

Sidney Brodie with his quilt in his Durham studio. Photo by Cameron Beach

It was not his plan to join a festive event celebrating civic groups, marching bands and Santa Claus. 

But Brenda Young, whose son Edward was shot in 2017, asked for this. And Brodie could not say no.  

“It’s strictly about the families with me here for the parade,” he said. “I know this quilt means a lot to them.” 

Edward’s full name, Edward Young III, is painted onto a green square. His mother knows exactly where to look for it. 

Young said she was inspired to include the quilt at the polular event to remind families harmed by gun violence that others remember their loved ones. 

“My son is on the quilt. And it’s Christmas time. And I know everybody is in their feelings. I just wanted to give back to the community for the ones that lost their family to gun violence,” she said. 

Displaying the quilt publicly is recent for Brodie. His stitching began as a personal project after Shaquana Atwater, a toddler, was shot in 1994. Brodie learned she was struck in crossfire while playing outside her home while he was employed as a 911 operator in Durham.

For each victim, he adds a square to the eclectic colorful display, now more than 60 feet long. The quilt’s mix of colors and fabrics is intentionally random.

“I feel like each square is as unique and imperfect and as we are as people,” Brodie said during an interview in his small Durham studio. 

With simple details, Brodie tells a powerful narrative. Black buttons are visible on some squares. Each one marks the name of a child younger than 12. Included is 9-year-old Z’yon Person who was killed in August while riding in a car with his family. 

In one row, two black and white squares are nearly identical. They are a tribute to 10-month-old Ruia Reams and her mother Zhytila Wilkins who were killed in their home in January. “Baby” and “Mama” are painted alongside their names. 

“Quilts are tangible and functionally a quilt is a comforter. It’s doing that. It’s bringing comfort to these families,” Brodie said. 

Brodie removes the quilt’s black border to add more squares or to link it to other memorials when he brings it to vigils outside Durham. Photo by Cameron Beach

In a year when lethal gun violence is increasing in Durham, Young invited other family members of people named on the quilt to help carry it Saturday. She recruited members of the Southern High School football team, emerging anti-violence activists in town, too.

Edward Young played in the marching band at Southern High School, so when she asked them to help at the parade, it was a way to honor Edward’s legacy, she said. 

Young has been busy collecting donations and saving parts of her paycheck to purchase holiday-themed gloves, scarves and hats for the helpers.   

Bringing the quilt to a parade is a first, but Brodie’s designed it to tell multiple stories. White squares with black and white checkered ribbon, for instance, represent names listed out of chronological sequence. Brodie cut shirt cuffs and sewed buttoned pieces on top of the squares.

“The dates that I missed these people are all various dates throughout the years. They were at times in my life when I was going through personal things,” he said. “I chose cuffs to symbolize that these people slipped through my hands.” 

Brodie first displayed his quilt in 2017, after Kamari Munerlyn, age 7, was shot and killed on a drive home from a swimming pool. A vigil was held days later on the side of the road a police officer had tried to revive the child with CPR. 

Brodie stitched a yellow square with the boy’s name in blue and green onto the quilt during the vigil, while Munerlyn’s mother, father and grandmother watched. He got through it by wearing sunglasses on to hide his sorrow, he said.  

Young intends to lead the quilt procession Saturday, with Edward feeling nearby. As always, she’ll wear a heart-shaped necklace carrying Edward’s name inside.

“I’m ready. I’m so ready. This is something on my heart and that I want to,” she said. 

After the parade, Brodie will wrap his quilt in shrink wrap and take it back to his studio. These days he brings the quilt to vigils against gun violence elsewhere in North Carolina and out of state. 

Back in Durham, he is always prepared, regrettably, to add more names.

At top: Some of the more than 800 names on the Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Photo by Cameron Beach