Safer schools the goal of Columbia-area nonprofit’s partnership with local district | Education News for Columbia, SC & Richland County | #schoolsaftey

COLUMBIA — Multiple schools in northeast Richland County are partnering with a local nonprofit and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in an effort that district leaders hope will lead to safer schools in the Woodfield and Dentsville areas. 

The partnership, formalized June 22, brings the Columbia-area nonprofit Serve and Connect into eight schools in the Richland Two school district, centering around Richland Northeast High School.

It’s an attempt to build closer relationships with law enforcement, students and the larger community in the area, which the district hopes will “impact not just the safety and security of the school, but … the whole community,” according to Maria Owens, the district’s strategic partnerships director.

The nonprofit’s efforts will include community-oriented activities, like an upcoming free “fun in the sun” June 25 event at Jackson Creek Elementary School promising food, games and a DJ, as well as school-level meetings with sheriff’s department deputies and efforts to build a neighborhood association in the Woodfield area. 

Those school meetings include Serve and Connect’s “make it a conversation” initiative, a “student empowerment” program that invites police into schools to have conversations with students about issues affecting law enforcement and society more broadly, said Kassy Alia Ray, the nonprofit’s founder and CEO, during a June 22 news conference. 

“They get together in times when there’s no confrontation to just have conversations and begin to know one another, so that later on if they see each other out in the community, there’s a familiarity … it’s not as likely to escalate,” Owens said about the meetings between students and deputies. 

Richland Northeast’s Principal Mark Sims said he was “excited, elated and energized” about the formal relationship with the nonprofit, and he sees the conversations between students and deputies as a “platform” for students at his school, and the middle and elementary schools that feed into Richland Northeast. 

“Sometimes students just want to be heard, they want have an active voice within a learning community,” he said. 

The principal also said he hopes the Serve and Connect partnership will help his school’s mentorship program connect with possible mentors in the sheriff’s department and Fort Jackson. 

The 1,300-student campus off Decker Boulevard has faced a number of safety issues over the past semester, including one student caught with a loaded handgun in April and a string of phone and social media threats in February that disrupted schools across Lexington and Richland counties. 

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Ray, the Serve and Connect CEO, founded the group after her husband Greg Alia, a Forest Acres police officer and a Richland Northeast graduate, was shot and killed in 2015.  

Its work in Richland Two is Serve and Connect’s first formal partnership with a school, she said. 

“I am so proud of how our mission has grown, and especially thankful for the opportunity to bring our work to life here in this community, where Greg was born, raised and where he served,” Ray said. 

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded the organization a $964,480 grant for its work trying to reduce gun violence in North Columbia, which included plans for organized sports, student groups and block parties. 

Those plans are meant to prevent violence in the area before it starts by building relationships, teaching young people conflict resolution skills and connecting residents to resources they need.

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