Orange superintendent apologizes for district’s ‘unacceptable’ mistakes after threats

Orange County Schools targets intolerance

The Orange County Schools took a step toward addressing racial disparities in achievement and discipline Monday night, unanimously passing an equity policy.
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The Orange County Schools took a step toward addressing racial disparities in achievement and discipline Monday night, unanimously passing an equity policy.

At his last board meeting as superintendent, Todd Wirt took a moment to apologize for how the Orange County Schools has handled recent turmoil.

The district’s response to threats of school violence was “unacceptable,” Wirt said.

School system staff members go through training related to school shooting threats, including lock-down drills and an annual symposium with student resource officers. Wirt said student safety was his priority as both superintendent and a district parent.

“When we make mistakes as a system, it damages the trust that our community has in us,” he said, adding the district must “earn that trust back.”

Latarndra Strong, a parent and organizer for Orange County’s Hate-Free Schools Coalition, appreciated the apology.

“I think he kind of got that right,” Strong said.

Ali Braswell, another coalition member, called Wirt’s apology lukewarm.

“He hit all the points, but I still think there is that knee jerk reaction and blame that went to the principal at Cedar Ridge,” Braswell said after the meeting.

Todd Wirt
Todd Wirt, Orange County Schools superintendent Orange County Schools

Delayed reporting

in late May, two school shooting threats were found written on bathroom walls at Cedar Ridge High School. Neither the principal nor school resource officers reported the incidents to their superiors, The News & Observer reported.

In a joint statement released by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Orange County Schools, Sheriff Charles Blackwood expressed concern over his officers’ failure to report the threats.

“Regardless of what action a school principal is taking in response to a threat, it is violation of our policy for a deputy not to immediately report any threat to the safety of our students and school system personnel to his or her superior officer,” he said, calling it ”unconscionable.”

Wirt also expressed concern. “We rely on our school principal to take the lead to protect children,” he said in the statement, “and without a doubt we must do better.”

Also In May, an elementary school teacher at Pathways Elementary was arrested after allegedly threatening to “shoot up” her school. Two other teachers knew about the alleged threats for days before they told administrators.

Community responses

Fourteen people spoke to the school board Monday, mostly about equity issues and district communication around the threats.

Melissa Jackson, parent of two current and two former students of Cedar Ridge, provided a letter she sent to the board after the threats there, in which she criticized how principal Intisar Hamidullah handled the situation.

“The CRHS principal not taking a dated threat seriously is beyond unforgivable in this day and age! Putting our students at risk is unacceptable!” Jackson wrote.

Jackson said she does not feel safe sending her child to a school where safety is not a “top priority.”

Hamidullah, who has been principal of Cedar Ridge since August 2018, also had her defenders.

During public comments, Braswell congratulated the district on its recent hiring of an equity director and also said Hamidullah should not resign or be removed.

Instead, Braswell said the district should focus on its policies.

“You obviously need better comprehensive safety policies to address such incidents, as she actually followed the policies already in place,” Braswell said. “Now should she have followed up with the incompetent SROs and escalated the incident in order to ensure the safety of her students? Yes!”

Braswell and Jackson were not allowed to finish their statements, as board policy prohibits public comments about individual staff members.

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.