Groups ask U.S. Justice Department to close prison pipeline in Wake County schools

By: - January 23, 2014 6:12 am


Handcuffed for stepping out of line in the cafeteria. Pepper-sprayed in the eyes, TASERed in the chest, violently tackled to the ground or pushed into walls. Interrogated and searched without consent, parental or attorney involvement.

Sounds like the stuff of a youth detention facility on lockdown, except it’s happening in Wake County schools — a pattern of police misconduct that’s more often landing students in the criminal courts than in the principal’s office.

And it has to stop, said Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services.

Yesterday the group, along with a coalition of local, state and national advocacy organizations, asked the U.S. Department of Justice to step in. In a detailed 74-page complaint filed on behalf of eight students and others in Wake County schools who’ve been subjected to excessive school police practices, the groups have asked the Department to investigate the police departments involved and order the district to revamp its discipline practices.

The Wake County Public School System’s over-reliance on unregulated school policing practices, often in response to minor infractions of school rules, results in the routine violation of students’ educational and constitutional rights,” the groups said in the complaint.

Those practices are disproportionately directed at students with disabilities and African-American students, they added, with devastating and lifelong consequences, since North Carolina is the only state that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when charged with criminal offenses.

Even in the event that a frivolous school-based criminal charge is later dismissed for lack of merit, students age 16 years and older must still bear permanent negative repercussions as the result of having an adult criminal arrest record that will resurface anytime a criminal background check is run.”


In recent years, the increased presence of police and other security officers at Wake County schools has led to an increase in the percentage of school-based delinquency complaints there. During 2012-2013, 42 percent of all delinquency complaints were school-based, and often for minor misconduct — throwing water balloons, for example, or stealing paper from a recycling bin.

School resource officers,” on contract from the Wake County Sheriff’s Department and the Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Garner, Holly Springs, Knightdale, Raleigh, and Wake Forest police departments, patrol schools on a full-time basis and can arrest students and file criminal or delinquency complaints against them for misconduct that occurs there.

Private security guards from a company likewise under contract with the district are also on hand to assist the school resource officers.

And at times schools add to that presence by calling in their own municipal officers (not retained by the district) to question and arrest students.

The result is that “too much of the responsibility for disciplining students in a lawful and educationally sound manner is delegated from the [district] to law enforcement and private security officials,” according to the groups.

That police-state atmosphere is exacerbated by the fact that officers do not have clearly defined roles in the schools and lack the training in adolescent development, mental health issues, and positive behavior management needed to manage what are often typical middle and high school flare-ups.

Instead, officers treat such school incidents as they would similar incidents on the street, criminalizing that behavior with devastating, lifelong consequences for students.

Those consequences are disproportionately felt by African-American students and students with disabilities.

On average, African American students have represented only 25.2% of the total school population in WCPSS over the past five school years,” the groups said in the complaint.

However, they have received on average 68.2% of the delinquency complaints filed in the WCPSS over the past five state fiscal years.”


The complaint comes just two weeks after the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education issued guidelines designed to move public schools away from delegating discipline to law enforcement and help them meet their responsibilities for that task directly, without discriminating against students on the basis of race or other categories.

We’ve seen that severe discipline policies often increase the numbers of suspensions and expulsions without effectively making schools safer or creating better learning environments,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in his January 8 address announcing the guidelines. 

And we’ve seen that the impacts of exclusionary policies are not felt equally in every segment of the population – with students of color and those with disabilities often receiving different and more severe punishments than their peers.”

Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have taken several steps to eliminate discriminatory discipline practices around the country, announcing the Supportive School Discipline Initiative in July 2011 and securing consent orders from school districts under investigation for excessive discipline practices that disproportionately impact minorities and students with disabilities.

For example, the school district in Meridian, Miss. district agreed in March 2013 to put an end to discriminatory discipline practices there after a Justice Department investigation confirmed that African-American students and students with disabilities there had been disproportionately punished for minor incidents in violation of their constitutional rights.

After repeated but unsuccessful efforts to work with Wake County schools to change the culture there, the groups now hope that, with the filing of the complaint yesterday, intercession by the Justice Department will bring about that result.

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Sharon McCloskey

Sharon McCloskey, former Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, writes about the courts and decisions that impact North Carolina residents. McCloskey also wrote for Lawyers Weekly and practiced law for more than 20 years. Follow her online at or @sharonmccloskey.