In some schools, students who cut in line at the cafeteria might be scolded or sent to a guidance counselor. In Wake County, N.C., they risk getting handcuffed and thrown in jail, according to a complaint against the local school district and law-enforcement agencies filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In the 74-page complaint, a coalition of civil- and children’s-rights groups representing eight students alleges that the district has failed to take meaningful steps to “stem the tide of students being pushed out of school and into juvenile and criminal court systems.”
Over the past five years, the district’s use of law enforcement officers to deal with disciplinary issues has landed thousands of students in court, keeping them out of school, according to the complaint.
The toll on black students and students with disabilities is disproportionately high, it continues. Although black students accounted for just a quarter of the district’s student population during the past few years, they’ve received as many as three-quarters of the district’s school-based delinquency complaints in a given year, according to data from North Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice.
“It’s becoming part of the school culture,” said Jennifer Story, an attorney with Advocates for Children's Services, one of the groups that filed the complaint. “In one case, a parent didn’t even know that her son had been handcuffed until we told her about it. The student was like, ‘It just happens all the time.’”
The students listed in the complaint include “T.S.”, a 15-year-old black student described as introverted and mild-mannered. His problems with school authorities began after he cut in line at lunch one day and drew the attention of a security officer, who grabbed his arm. When T.S. tried to pull away, the officer twisted his arm behind his back, pushed him over a 4-foot dividing wall, and led him out of the cafeteria in handcuffs, the complaint said.
T.S. was suspended for three days. When he returned to school, some fellow students assaulted him, knocking him to the ground and jumping on him, for reasons that aren’t explained in the complaint. The same officer who had handcuffed him three days earlier then pepper-sprayed his face. T.S. was handcuffed again, and ordered to appear in juvenile court and spend nine months on probation.
In another alleged incident, a 15-year-old black student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder punched a student who had hit him and used a racial slur against him, the complaint said. He was sent to juvenile court, where he agreed to a plea deal that resulted in six months of probation, 24 hours of community service, and a juvenile delinquency record.
A spokeswoman for the Wake County Public School System said the district's leadership is still reviewing the complaint. Representatives for the Raleigh Police Department and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, whose officers are among the security personnel posted at district schools, said they had not seen the complaint and weren’t ready to comment.
The presence of law-enforcement officers in schools throughout the country has grown in recent years, according to Nancy Trevino, a spokeswoman for the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a group that advocates on behalf of students who are removed from schools because of disciplinary issues.
“What we’re seeing in Wake County isn’t something that’s exclusive to North Carolina, but more of a national trend,” she said.
Activists call it the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and they attribute its growth to fears of school violence.
“It stems from the heavy saturation of the public with images of juvenile predators and high-profile school shootings that started with Columbine and has increased since then,” said Jason Langberg, an attorney with Advocates for Children's Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration issued the first federal legal guidance on school discipline, instructing school administrators to use harsh punishments only as a last resort and to avoid discrimination.
Langberg said he hopes the DOJ will follow up the North Carolina complaint with an investigation. That would pressure schools to increase oversight of officers and to embrace “positive and productive alternatives to arrests and court referrals,” he said.
He referred to Meridian, Miss., where the DOJ recently reached an agreement with the local school district to limit the number of suspensions, expulsions and arrests, and to restrict the use of school police officers to handle disciplinary problems.
"We’re certainly going to want to see some of that here,” he said.