By: Tobias Rangel, Isaiah Heinz and Donna Diaz
For students, SROs and sheriffs alike, preventing gun violence remains a top priority. But they have different ideas about how to do it.
Editor’s note: This story was published in The Hook’s investigative magazine right before news broke that two Hillside High School students were shot nearby the school in Durham. One died shortly after the incident, and the other sustained non-life threatening injuries.
When gunshots filled the Friday night air, Riverside students, athletes and staff scattered.
Around 9:30 pm on Friday, October 1, 2021, following Riverside’s 20-0 victory over Northern High School, a car drove recklessly into the main parking lot on the home side of Durham County Memorial stadium and started firing shots.
A 17- year-old Riverside student was struck in the leg.
Police arrived within minutes. The student was taken to the hospital for non-life threatening injuries and was later released and recovered at home.
What the data says
Gun violence is defined as any violence using a firearm, homicide, suicide, and anything in between, according to Amnesty International.
All around the world, there are acts of gun violence happening every minute, but few countries have have more gun-related deaths each year than the United States.
According to gunviolencearchive.org, in 2022, there were over 36,000 deaths related to gun violence, including 557 mass shootings and 27 mass murders. These numbers are down from 2018 when there were 54,000 gun violence-related deaths in the US.
While the US numbers are decreasing, they are still very high compared to Canada where, in 2020, there were only 8,300 gun violence-related deaths. While the COVID-19 pandemic could partially cause the low numbers (because their lockdown measures were stricter and longer), the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics reports that the rate was similar to previous years.
“In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no change in the rate of firearm-related crime nationally compared to 2019,” wrote Mary Allen in a 2022 report published by Statistics Canada. “Rates increased in some areas and decreased in others.”
Globally, the US stands out with much more gun violence-related deaths than most of the other countries in the world.
According to healthdata.com, the United States is in the top ten of high-income countries with a death rate of 4.12. Out of all countries, the United States is in second place in total gun violence deaths and twenty-second out of firearm-related deaths per 100 thousand members of the population.
According to the CDC’s gun violence statistics, Texas had the highest death rate (number of deaths per 100,000 people) in the US at 12.7 in 2019, followed by California (7.2) Florida (12.7) Georgia (15.8) and Ohio (13.3).
North Carolina is seventh on the list, with a death rate of 13.1 and 1,400 deaths.
Inside North Carolina, different counties have vastly different rates. The counties with the highest death rates are Vance (29.58), Robeson (28.56), and Graham county (24.85).
According to everystat.org, Durham’s death rate is 12.74 and it is the fifty-third highest in NC. Orange County’s is 6.31, Wake’s 6.44, and Chatham’s 8.9.
Durham’s death rate is much larger than surrounding counties. That’s due in part to Durham’s population being larger, too.
“A minimum of two SROs at our high schools”
Sheriff Clarence Birkhead never had his sights set on becoming the Sheriff of Durham County.
“I never dreamed of being the sheriff when I started out as a deputy many, many, many years ago,” Birkhead said.
However, through hard work and 38 years of being in service, he was elected in 2018 and again in 2022.
“I’m in my thirty-eighth year. I became a deputy in 1984 in Randolph County,” Birkhead said. “In 1984, I was a young deputy, and I worked in every facet of law enforcement.”
Now, in his second term of being a sheriff, Birkhead has a lot of responsibilities and duties to fulfill.
“What really prompted me to run for sheriff was that I saw some things that I thought needed to be changed or modernized,”Sheriff Clarence Birkhead
“The sheriff is responsible for law enforcement, the detention center, court services, security of court personnel, judges,” Birkhead said. He is also responsible for “all civil process subpoenas, evictions, domestic violence orders, everything that’s civil.”
Birkhead decided to run for Sheriff because he saw things that needed to be changed.
“What really prompted me to run for sheriff was that I saw some things that I thought needed to be changed or modernized,” Birkhead said.
One thing he wanted to change was the school resource officer program,
“[I wanted to] Revamp our SRO program, where SROs are truly a school resource officer, not disciplinarians, and not the heavy-handed Gestapo,” he said.
Birkhead has encountered active shooter situations in his career as a deputy, and with that knowledge, he is not afraid for his children’s lives when he sends them to school.
“My two youngest were educated in Durham Public Schools and I felt very safe when them being in our school system,” Birkhead said. “I’ve never really had that concern for their safety.”
Although he feels safe, he’d still like to have a little more protection in our schools. Currently, we have one full-time SRO and a few other SROs that aren’t full-time.
“We have some great SROs,” Birkhead said. “I would love to have a minimum of two SROs at our high schools.”
He wants to make sure our school is as safe as can be, even if that includes adding items like metal detectors to find weapons or other ways of keeping weapons out of the school.
“I think we need to do whatever is necessary to keep our school safe,” he said.
However, he acknowledges that SROs and metal detectors can be poorly received at times.
“We do not want to create a police state or an armored compound where students, faculty, and staff don’t feel comfortable,” Birkhead said.
How some students feel
Riverside currently has one full-time SRO: Deputy Quintin Barren
Even with all the protective measures in the school, some students don’t feel as safe as they should.
“I kinda feel like any day someone would just walk in with a gun and shoot things up,” said one student who asked to remain anonymous. “Not really for any reason of the people in the school, just generally.”
Other students feel differently, though.
“I feel safe in school from conflicts that can be addressed, conflicts that can’t be addressed such as mass shootings to like white supremacy, obviously there’s nothing that we can do about that,” Senior Nya Batson reports. “I feel safe enough.”
Even though Birkhead thinks we need more School Resource Officers, the students disagree.
“I feel like police in school, just due to the climate around policing, kinda paints an image for students that the school itself is unsafe,” Batson said. “I feel like the number of police that we have now is enough.”
Others believe strongly that we shouldn’t have more SROs in our school.
“I do not think there should be more policemen in our school,” senior Olivia Henry said. “I feel like the way that policemen deal with school violence is violence in itself.”
Instead of adding more officers and people like this, Henry believe that getting to the problem before it starts is a better way to deal with violence in schools.
“I feel like the way to deal with school violence is, rather than to meet it with violence, fight fire with water,” Henry said. “I feel like trying to see where they’re coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing and counseling them instead of tasing them.”
Batson agrees with the calmer approach to solving this issue.
“I don’t think that schools need more police officers, but they need more preventative measures for the violence that they see inside of schools,” she said. “Maybe group counseling or something to help with situations before they arise.”
Piper Winton, Jaden Butler, Jacob Hindman and Jakyies Evans contributed to this story.