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Communities in Schools offers 'one-stop shopping area' for student support at Smith and Dudley high schools


Squeezed between a hard class and a new job, the teenager in front of student support specialist Carla McMillan struggled to see a way to get it all done.

McMillan listened to her worries as the two sat together in the Communities in Schools office at Smith High School, a room lined with racks of donated clothing, a miniature food pantry, snacks and school supplies.

“You’ve got to pass that AP test; you owe it to yourself,” she told the girl. “You’ve got to be honest with your manager.”

Smith and Dudley high schools have a special partnership with the nonprofit Communities in Schools of Greater Greensboro aimed at preventing students from dropping out of high school.

The schools each employ a student support specialist, who is also considered part of CIS. These specialists offer open doors and listening ears, while marshalling teams of university interns and tutors, as well as donations, as they work to support students and families through to graduation.

“Whatever it is they need, I’m here,” said Cheryl Donahue-Wright, the CIS student support specialist at Dudley. “We are kind of like Walmart: we are your one-stop shopping area in this building.”

What is Communities in Schools?

Communities in Schools is a national nonprofit organization working on dropout prevention with local affiliates in 25 states and Washington, D.C.

Communities in Schools of Greater Greensboro began in the 1988-89 school year serving 84 students, according to executive director Jimmi Williams. Today, the group serves about 2,500 to 3,000 students per year, he said, and works in nine district schools. The school district does not pay any money to the Greensboro CIS group for its work. CIS is supported solely by United Way, grants and donors, the organization said. Another affiliate of the national CIS organization, Communities in Schools of High Point, works with schools in that area.

CIS’s programs vary between schools and communities, but their common strategy is having a point person, or site coordinator, within the schools to carry out their mission.

Of the nine district schools the Greensboro organization works in, two are high schools, Smith and Dudley. They’re running what Williams calls a “comprehensive services model.”

In that model, the organization works to meet the various needs of students and their families, whether it’s offering check-ins, advice, a clean set of clothes, some tutoring, a referral to assistance from a partner organization, or just the chance to vent.

“It is the classic CIS model,” Williams said. “It is the heart and soul of CIS.”

The student support specialists aren’t the only staff members at Dudley or Smith with a broad mandate to help students and families — they work alongside and in connection with the guidance department and school social worker at each of the two high schools.

However, Dudley principal Rodney Wilds said the benefit of working with Communities in Schools extends beyond what he could get from just hiring a student support specialist without the connection to the nonprofit.

He believes Williams’ long-standing community ties and partnerships with other groups and colleges make donations and support flow more smoothly.

“I don’t know if we would be able to do it as quickly as they can,” he said. “Our day-to-day is tied up into so many things. When you have a resource like Communities in Schools, it only helps the school meet the needs of the child — not only quicker, but more efficiently.”

In the last week, Donahue-Wright said, she learned a Dudley family that she’d been helping had run out of money to stay in the hotel where they were living, and the mother had no place to put the family’s belongings.

Donahue-Wright said she brought the news to CIS, and Williams was able to authorize payment for a week of the family’s hotel bill.

That provided just enough time for some plans to come together in a meeting Donahue-Wright attended on Thursday. She said they are working with a church that has secured a place for the mother and her family.

“She should have the apartment by Wednesday,” she said.

Supporting students While they share the same job title, McMillan and Donahue-Wright came from very different backgrounds before starting their student support role.

Donahue-Wright is a professional social worker who has spent the last couple of decades in Guilford County Schools. She started her role at Dudley last school year.

One of the biggest myths she’s come across, she said, is the idea that CIS only serves students who are failing out of their classes, getting suspended, or missing a bunch of school. They take the approach that dropout prevention has to cast a wide net: that includes high achievers who could use some support, just like anybody else.

“In reality, any student can be at-risk,” she said.

When students come in, she said, she will sit with them and listen and problem solve. She keeps food and bottled water nearby.

“In doing so, we are building relationships; we are building trust,” she said. “We are modeling for them consistency; we are modeling for them compassion.”

A different path led McMillan to Smith four years ago. She once worked in banking and finance, has a master’s degree in adult education, and worked as a community college instructor at one point. She previously worked with Communities in Schools for two years at Jackson Middle School, where CIS leads an after-school program.

She said when Williams first approached her about taking on the Smith job, she felt a little reluctant, figuring the vibe of the job might be different than running fun clubs for middle school students.

“But I was like, ‘You know what, that could be really exciting too, because I get to tap into some resources and some other ways to try to help keep our kids in school,’” she said.

So she went for it.

“I love it; I love the work,” she said. “I am not going to sit here and make it seem like it’s easy, because it’s not, because kids are coming to us from all walks of life.”

McMillan has a list of students she wants to “lay eyes on” at least once a week. Sometimes, she’s got to track them down, in hallways or in their classrooms. Other times, they come to her.

In early December, Smith junior Shay Damon stopped by the Communities in Schools office for a visit.

“You’re so pretty!” McMillan told her, after Damon showed off a photo of herself on her phone.

Damon said her foster mother and McMillan know each other, and that helped lead to their connection when she came to Smith.

“I just came across her and ever since then, I’m always with her,” she said.

She said she appreciates how McMillan is laid back, easy to talk to, and — like her title suggests — extremely supportive.

“She’s just always here if you need anything,” Damon said. “Like your right-hand-man kind of thing.”

Partnering with local colleges

CIS draws on its partnerships with local universities to bring in college students to help in the two high schools.

McMillan and Donahue-Wright each have their own group of college tutors they can deploy for students who need assistance. They are paid for and supplied by the college work-study programs.

Each also leads a team of social work interns who assist with the work of helping keep students on track and in school.

At Smith, for example, McMillan had 53 high school students enrolled as of late November. These are students whose parents have specifically signed them up with CIS.

She has three interns who spend the day at the school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, each taking on “case management” of about eight of those students. Another dozen or so of the students receive similar assistance from Rashard Jones and his intern via the African American Male Initiative, a parallel program also run by Communities in Schools that provides mentorship to boys from elementary school through graduation.

Case management means regularly checking student grades and attendance, and the interns hold brief meetings with the students every week or two to help figure out if there’s anything they can do to help them stay committed and successful in their classes.

Deaisha Cooper, a senior undergraduate social work major at UNCG, said she went into the role thinking students might not want to be open with her, that they might see her as a older person just trying to control them, and not grasp her purpose.

It was the opposite, she said.

“With my clients, most of them opened up to me right off the gate,” she said. “When I first met them, they were willing to talk to me about what they had going on. And then the ones I didn’t really interact with in the beginning, I figured out motives, or ways to get them to talk, to understand who they were.”

Donahue-Wright said having the partnership with UNCG and N.C. A&T to bring in the social work interns is something that stands out about working with CIS, compared with her other past experience in the schools.

Students connect differently to different people, she said, and some may have a stronger connection with her while others might bond with the interns. She mentioned one student in particular, who sees her intern as her go-to person to talk to in the school.

“I think she feels very comfortable, just because she sees her as being more relatable, younger, versus an adult that’s in an office,” she said. “And that’s the beauty of it.”

Delivering donations

At Smith and Dudley, CIS manages donations, everything from clothing to canned goods, meant for students and their families as the organization tries to help those battling poverty or dealing with various temporary crises.

Donahue-Wright said at Dudley, they can especially use donations of socks. Other needed staples are soap, deodorant, toothpaste and washcloths.

CIS volunteer Dot Timmons, who reports to Donahue-Wright, mans the “Panther Boutique.”

It’s a little room, sort of an overgrown closet, off the in-school suspension classroom that’s across the hall from the Communities in Schools office.

It’s filled with donated clothes, gently used, which suffuse the space with the scent of clean cotton.

Over the past six years, the Dudley alumna has organized and curated donations and helped students who visit her in the boutique.

“We have a little bit of everything,” she said.

Donahue-Wright said a large portion of the donations they receive come from within the Dudley community. That means teachers, staff, parents, alumni and students trying to find ways to care for one another.

She told the story of how one Dudley parent and her daughter worked together on a gift for families in need: a bunch of Food Lion gift cards the daughter then artfully attached to plush toys.

A portion of that gift rode along with Donahue-Wright on the last day of school in December as she made food deliveries to families.

She had two delivery stops in mind on that trip, one to the family living in the hotel, the other to the home of Shawanda Todd, a Dudley parent who lost her belongings and the apartment she’d been renting in a fire last March.

When that fire happened, Todd turned to her children’s schools to ask for help, at a loss for many other options. That’s when she first got to know Donahue-Wright, who began regularly assisting the family with food and gift cards to buy groceries, among other kinds of help.

On that Dec. 20 delivery run, Donahue-Wright presented Todd with a golden-fur stuffed dog bearing a gift-certificate, along with a cardboard box full of food.

Todd wrapped her arms around Donahue-Wright, her left hand still holding the toy, which rested against the other woman’s back as they hugged.

“She’s been a sister and auntie, most everything to my family,” said Todd, who most valued how the social worker showed her care. “‘I just wanted to check base with you, see how you are doing,’ — those words meant a lot to me.”

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Here’s why N.C. women with restraining orders for domestic violence are still being killed

HILLSBOROUGH — Victoria St. Hillaire feared for her life.

She had been stalked and terrorized by an former boyfriend who had a court order to stay away from her and her family — and multiple charges for disobeying that order.

“I am afraid of what’s next and the safety for my family,” St. Hillaire wrote when she sought a third domestic violence protective order on Oct. 9, 2019.

On Nov. 25, the 28-year-old mother and certified medical assistant was fatally shot by a former boyfriend as she arrived for work at UNC Family Medicine in Durham. The ex-boyfriend, Lequintin Ford, 33, then shot and killed himself.

It wasn’t the first time Ford had confronted St. Hillaire at her workplace or her Alamance County home. Court documents showed warning signs as early as 2015, when he assaulted her with a bat. Ford was arrested more than 20 times in the past two years, including for domestic incidents involving another woman.

When he died, Ford faced three new felony stalking charges, misdemeanor stalking and harassing phone call charges, and three violations of his domestic violence protective order. He had been jailed at least twice — the first time, his bail was set at $100,00; the second time, $250,000 — but was able to get out when a judge reduced his bail in November.

The conditions put in place at that hearing — that he wear an ankle monitor, be home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., stay away from St. Hillaire’s home and work — didn’t protect St. Hillaire.

Her story is not unusual.

While some studies indicate that protective orders can prevent or reduce the severity of future abuse, the U.S. Department of Justice has not definitively answered the question of how effective they are. A 2003 federal Office of Justice Programs report still cited today noted that nearly half of all abusers charged with killing their partners had previous arrests and that nearly a third of the victims had called police previously.

Common and costly

One in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience physical, sexual or psychological domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 41% of the female survivors and 16% of male survivors are physically injured as a result of domestic violence, the CDC reported.

The costs can be high, averaging $103,767 over a female survivor’s lifetime for medical care, lost productivity, legal fees and other costs, and $23,414 for a male survivor, the CDC reported. The cost to society: An estimated $3.6 trillion, based on the lifetimes of 43 million male and female domestic violence victims studied for a 2014 National Institutes of Health report.

Then there is the loss of life.

Roughly half of the female homicide victims each year — 3,268 in 2018 — are killed by a former or current male partner, federal data showed. Available data for male victims showed that nearly 5% were killed by an intimate partner. Men were more likely to kill than women, federal data showed.

The N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which tracks North Carolina’s domestic violence homicides, reported that 56 people were killed in 2019, including one person each in Greensboro, High Point, Kernersville and Eden, and three in Burlington. While the same number of people were killed in 2018, the coalition reported an increasing number of homicides — averaging 77 — each year between 2013 and 2017.

The numbers include homicides involving both same-sex and opposite-sex intimate partners, but not domestic violence between non-intimate family members.

Following the rules

Most protective orders do what they are designed to do, domestic violence advocates said, but the key is an abuser who will follow the rules.

“If this is an offender who doesn’t want to go to jail, who cares about their reputation and wants to look good in the community, it’s going to be a whole lot more meaningful for them than for someone who really doesn’t care if they get arrested,” said Kathy Hodges, the deputy director of the Durham Crisis Response Center.

Sherry Honeycutt Everett, the domestic violence coalition’s legal and policy director, noted that protective orders have other benefits, including tougher penalties for low-level offenses such as stalking and harassment, and child-custody arrangements.

More than 32,600 North Carolina residents sought protective orders in 2018, according to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

Judges awarded protective orders — also called 50B orders in North Carolina — to 33% of the men and women who sought them last year, data showed, while another 23% voluntarily dropped their protective order petitions. The rest of the petitions were denied or involuntarily dismissed because the person requesting the order didn’t show up for the hearing.

In North Carolina, 50B orders are only available to heterosexual couples who are living together, married, dating or divorced, or share a child. Same-sex couples can only get a 50B order if they live with their partner, leaving those who are only dating to request a civil no-contact order, or 50C.

A 50C order limits contact between the parties and makes some crimes, such as stalking, a felony. However, unlike with a 50B, offenders cannot be arrested for violating the order or have their guns seized.

Judges issued just over 2,400 civil no-contact orders last year, or roughly a quarter of the 9,518 petitions that were filed, records show.

Survivors can endure months and even years of abuse before going to court, multiple studies show. Over half of those who have suffered repeated assaults do not report them to police, the National Crime Victimization Survey found, often because the survivor is trying to protect the abuser, fears what the abuser might do if arrested, or considers the violence a private or family matter.

The abuse can escalate when victims finally decide to seek a protective order or leave the abuser.

One study reported in the 2003 National Institute of Justice Journal found that 75% of female domestic violence homicide victims and 85% of women who experienced severe violence had left or tried to leave an abuser. Women who were previously threatened or assaulted with a weapon were 20 times more likely to be killed, according to a separate study cited.

Safety plans

Many survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and severe anxiety, according to a National Institute of Justice study. In general, female survivors who end up in the hospital emergency room “are more socially isolated, have lower self-esteem and have fewer social and financial resources” than other female emergency room patients, the study’s authors said.

The legal process can exacerbate the isolation and terror, Hodges said. Not only must they explain how a partner has been violent and aggressive to a courtroom of people, but many also worry how their abuser might react.

People of color, those who identify as LGBTQ and immigrants who are in the country illegally may have additional challenges, from a higher rate of domestic violence to a lower likelihood that their story will be believed and supported. Those groups also may fear contacting police and court officials about a domestic violence situation because of institutionalized bias or fear of deportation, Everett said.

That’s why a personal safety plan is critical, Hodges said. A safety plan can be tailored to address how the survivor and their children can be safe while living with the abuser, while preparing to leave the home, or once they have moved out.

Prosecutors also consider a survivor’s needs, Durham County Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Spain said at an October forum. If there is no other evidence and the survivor refuses to testify, however, that may mean dismissing the charges against the abuser, she said.

Most violations of contact orders involve some kind of contact, Everett said, which can be hard to prove. Some, like Lequintin Ford, drive by or show up at their victim’s home or workplace. Others may make contact indirectly through a third party or on social media, which Everett said presents new challenges as courts balance victims’ rights with free speech rights.

Data collected by the State Bureau of Investigation shows that one person killed each year in 2018 and in 2017 had a protective order in place at the time of their death. In 2016, six domestic violence-related homicide victims had protective orders.

Orange County death

Protective orders are stronger now than when North Carolina first enacted its domestic violence law — Chapter 50B — in 1979, advocates say. An Orange County murder case sparked the call for more reform within the next decade.

Dawn Jolly was 25 when she sought a protective order against her husband Randall Jolly in 1989. Randall Jolly had become abusive and threatening, in one instance, chasing his wife’s car down the highway as he fired a pistol. Just days before Dawn Jolly testified about the highway incident, shots were fired into her workplace, hitting her computer.

Dawn Jolly didn’t trust the legal system to protect her, co-workers said at Randall Jolly’s trial.

In September, Randall Jolly followed Dawn Jolly to the Hillsborough day care and parked his car behind the brown Nissan truck she had borrowed from a friend. Witnesses said Dawn Jolly was crouched inside the truck when he leaned inside and shot her — three times in the stomach and once in the back.

As Randall Jolly drove away, Dawn Jolly fought for her life, aware of what had happened until she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, according to court records. Randall Jolly was sentenced in 1990 to 20 years to life in prison. He was released in 2017.

Local, state laws changed

Superior Court Judge Carl Fox, who was district attorney at the time, recalled the public criticism of how the legal system had failed Dawn Jolly. The case forced the district attorney’s office to take those crimes more seriously, he said, pushing for higher bonds and tougher conditions for someone being released from jail.

“We routinely asked that higher bonds be set in these domestic violence assault cases and asked for strict conditions in these 50B situations,” Fox said. “And pushed (for) them, because sometimes the victim didn’t want them (and) because you can’t tell which ones of these people is going to commit a murder and which ones are not.”

Dawn Jolly’s murder prompted the creation of the Committee for Justice for Women of Orange County, which led to the founding of the Women’s Center in Chapel Hill — now part of the Compass Center — and the Orange-Durham Coalition for Battered Women.

The committee also led to the creation of a domestic violence coordinator position in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Amber Keith-Drowns, the current coordinator, works closely with victims navigating the court system to provide them with contacts and resources.

In 2017, the Compass Center served more than 6,000 men, women and children, including about 1,200 domestic violence survivors, executive director Cordelia Heaney said. That probably underrepresents the actual need, she said in an earlier interview.

“I think that sometimes there’s this idea that because Orange County is a somewhat well-resourced county that either domestic violence doesn’t happen here or that all of the needs of survivors are already being met, and neither of those things are true,” Heaney said. “Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. It impacts people regardless of race or class or religion or gender or immigration status.”

Guilford County created two Family Justice Centers, one in Greensboro and one in High Point, to put services in one place and ease the process for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Important changes

There also have been changes at the state level in the last 30 years, including the addition of a “warrantless arrest” that lets police charge someone even if the victim doesn’t want to press charges or testify. A person arrested on domestic violence-related charges also can be held for up to 48 hours until a judge can set the bond for his release.

A more recent change is Britny’s Law, which in 2017 made it easier for prosecutors to use a defendant’s record of domestic violence against the victim to pursue first-degree murder charges — punishable by life in prison or death. Previously, defendants could be convicted of a lesser crime with less prison time by arguing that they killed in the heat of the moment.

Tougher gun restrictions have proven to be a sticking point, even though studies have found that a victim of domestic violence, is five times more likely to be killed if the abuser has a gun, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reported. The center noted that nearly 1 million female survivors were shot at by a domestic partner, and roughly 4.5 million women were threatened by a partner with a gun.

In North Carolina, a proposed “red flag law” and other bills that would have given judges more discretion to take an abuser’s guns away have died in the legislature. N.C. judges can order a person to surrender his or her guns only if that person has threatened or tried to use a deadly weapon against himself or a spouse, partner or child.

“Despite the fact that we have made progress and that we are recognizing these issues as issues that are important to the state,” Everett said, “it only goes so far when you start talking about other issues that become highly partisan and that people feel very passionate about, such as gun ownership and possession.”

Other legal challenges could force the state to recognize same-sex partners who have dated but don’t live together as being in a domestic relationship. N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein filed a legal brief in the case of a Wake County woman who was denied a protective order against her ex-girlfriend. The N.C. Court of Appeals has not yet issued a ruling, Everett said.

Others are challenging the state’s divorce laws, which require a married couple to live separately for one year before getting a final decree — even when there is domestic violence involved.

An assault every 9 seconds

Still it’s a race against time when a woman is assaulted every nine seconds in the United States, leaving her family and friends with more questions than answers, advocates said.

Anne Kirkpatrick’s family remembered her free spirit and “wicked sense of humor” after the 46-year-old was killed Sept. 8 in the front yard of her rural Orange County home.

The High Point native was well known for her love of animals and involvement in animal rescue and advocacy organizations, according to her obituary.

“As a five-year-old, she brought her mother a live mouse from outside, which made it clear to her mother that she would have a lifelong attachment to animals of all kinds,” the obituary said. “As an adult, she never had fewer than 4 pets at any given moment. Anne had birds, bunnies, chickens, dogs, ducks and goats in addition to horses at her farm, and all were given her love and affection.”

Over the summer, court records show Kirkpatrick had obtained two protective orders — one against her estranged husband and another against a boyfriend. The boyfriend, 58-year-old Timothy Parnell, violated his order twice by showing up at her home and calling her on the phone, sheriff’s officials have said.

Kirkpatrick was preparing for a new job as the restaurant manager at City Kitchen in Chapel Hill, when she was killed.

A preliminary report from the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examine said Kirkpatrick was stabbed once and shot twice. She also had a long cut on her right forearm and wrist — likely from defending herself.

Parnell, who is charged with first-degree murder, is being held in the Orange County jail without bail. His next court hearing is on Tuesday.

The steady toll of domestic violence-related injuries and deaths, is frustrating, local advocates said, but awareness is growing.

Everett noted Gov. Roy Cooper’s October announcement that cabinet-level state agencies now will let their employees use sick leave or vacation time for non-medical issues related to domestic violence.

Previously, state employees could use sick leave to deal with domestic violence-related medical issues, but had to use vacation time for other needs, including to attend court hearings, meet with a lawyer, or relocate.

“I think we’re doing a better job of educating people at all levels of society about what abuse is, about how prevalent it is, about how much of a role our official systems and government organizations — and even businesses and corporations — can play in trying to combat the problem,” Everett said.