Criminalizing Kids

Published — January 24, 2014 Updated — June 16, 2015 at 9:39 am ET

North Carolina complaint alleges excessive force by police in schools

Action on behalf of eight Raleigh-area students reflects debate over ‘school-to-prison pipeline’


Just days after the Obama Administration urged schools to back off harsh school discipline, a federal civil rights complaint filed in North Carolina this week alleges that school police have “violently tackled” students, pepper-sprayed teens and handcuffed, interrogated and arrested students on baseless accusations without informing them of their rights or calling parents.

The complaint filed Wednesday on behalf of eight Wake County, N.C. students recounts multiple incidents of alleged abusive police behavior, most of them involving African-American students. One alleged incident mentioned in the complaint resulted in the arrest of seven students last spring for disorderly conduct or assault after a prank involving a water balloon fight.

The incident at a Wake County public high school in Raleigh last May sparked public outcry, as media reports revealed what some parents considered an excessive police reaction. As a local TV station reported, a parent who tried to approach a school principal and talk about what he thought was excessive manhandling of students said he was confronted by officers, threatened with being Tasered and then arrested for second-degree trespassing.

“We leave those decisions up to the Raleigh PD,” a school spokeswoman told local media when asked if she thought arrests were excessive.

A slightly built 15-year-old student who was not arrested was also interviewed by local television and showed how he was bruised and scraped —and went to a hospital — after an officer forced him down on the ground.

The complaint filed Wednesday describes a host of additional allegations previously unknown to the public.

In 2011, according to the complaint, an 11th grade boy identified as T.W. was pulled out of a line while waiting for his new class schedule, asked to prove he was a student and pinned against a wall by two officers as a teacher tried to confirm to the officer that the boy was indeed a student.

An officer took the boy into the principal’s office and searched him, told him to take off his shoes and began to interrogate him about drugs and demand information about drugs — for which he allegedly told the boy he could get paid, the complaint alleges.

The boy was suspended from school for having a lighter, the complaint says, and given “a citation to adult criminal court for interfering with a police investigation.” The boy and his mother had to make four court appearances, the complaint alleges, during which the school officer told the judge that he had approached the boy initially because he looked old to be in school. Charges were dropped.

The boy — whom the complaint says continued to be harassed by the officer — eventually dropped out of school.

The complaint also alleges that a 16-year-old with severe emotional and learning disabilities was manhandled and handcuffed by a police officer during two minor incidents when he became agitated — in spite of an individual learning plan advising that the boy was best calmed by walking him through hallways and speaking to him.

The boy also was arrested after a brief altercation with a student who had bullied him, the complaint says, and put into a holding cell at a jail with adults until after 11 p.m. — all without the school informing his parents.

The complaint is filed against the Wake County Public School System, the Raleigh Police Department and a number of other law enforcement agencies. It asks for intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, whose educational opportunities section has been investigating other complaints of excessive discipline and harsh policing around the country.

The Wake County school system said its leadership is reviewing the complaint and had no immediate comment. The Raleigh Police Department said in a statement it hasn’t received the complaint, so “it is too soon to know if comment on behalf of the department would be appropriate.”

“Over the course of the past five years,” the complaint claims, “the unregulated use of law enforcement officers to address school discipline matters has resulted in thousands of Wake County Public School System students, predominantly African-American students and students with disabilities being deprived of their educational rights and sent to juvenile or criminal court as a result of minor misbehavior that occurs at school.”

The complaint also says that “even though SROs (school resource officers) patrol schools on a daily basis and can have significant, life-changing impacts on the lives of students … there are no comprehensive regulations in place that clearly define the roles and limitation of law enforcement officers in addressing student behavior.”

More than a dozen organizations filed the complaint, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation and several university law clinics in the state.

The complaint says that no data has been maintained or released documenting how many students have been referred to adult court from school — which can result in permanent records for students.

In North Carolina, minors 16 and 17 are automatically referred to adult court, which jeopardizes students’ ability to put allegations of infractions behind them that should have been dealt with at school, without police involvement, groups that filed the complaint say.

Complaints about spiraling school suspensions and excessive school police intervention have been building nationally in recent years.

On Jan. 8, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education jointly released federal guidelines — an unprecedented move — explaining and urging the use of alternatives to suspending and expelling students.

Disciplinary action that removes students for low-level infractions, research has shown, often fails to correct behavior and leaves students further behind academically, and more disengaged.

School police, the guidelines urge, should have well defined roles and limits and not get involved in routine disciplinary matters. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, in unveiling the guidelines, that “most exclusionary and disciplinary actions are for non-violent student behaviors, many of which once meant a phone call home.”

The Center for Public Integrity has investigated reports of questionable police tactics nationally inside schools, including incidents involving police in California and Utah who rounded up students who were all Latino or black — and had not been accused of any wrongdoing — but who were interrogated, forced to pose for mock mug shots and asked for information that was put into files.

North Carolina has already fallen under scrutiny because of complaints that black students have been suspended at greater rates than white students for the same types of infractions of school disciplinary policies, as the Center has reported.

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