New data highlight troubling racial disparities in Wake County school discipline

By: - March 31, 2017 5:34 am
student of color in a classroom

North Carolina lawmakers want to study the effectiveness of programs designed to increase the number of minority male teachers. Photo: Adobe Stock

North Carolina’s largest public school system under pressure to modify its deployment of School Resource Officers

Nearly 70 percent of law enforcement referrals made in Wake County schools over the last two years involved African American students.

That overwhelmingly high rate comes despite black students making up less than a quarter of total student enrollment in Wake County Public School System (WCPSS).

It’s one of several key findings gleaned in new district data obtained by Policy Watch from administrators in North Carolina’s largest public school system, almost three months after a Wake school resource officer’s violent clash with a black teenager at Rolesville High School spurred calls for reforms in the way K-12 leaders deploy cops in school.

Activists, local officials and policy experts this week all criticized the data, which is compiled by the school system in order to comply with the district’s expiring deal with local law enforcement agencies to provide SRO services.

“There is an obvious problem in Wake public schools when it comes to interacting with African American students,” said Letha Muhammad, an activist with the Education Justice Alliance, a group urging changes in the way Wake schools disciplines students.

[easy-tweet tweet=”“There is an obvious problem in Wake public schools when it comes to interacting with African American students” “]

And while the local district attorney’s office will not press criminal charges in January’s violent altercation at Rolesville High, Wake County’s school system has been the subject of long-standing scrutiny over complaints of disproportionate suspension and discipline practices. The allegations reportedly prompted officials with the U.S. Department of Education to open an investigation into the school system beginning in 2010.

Tim Simmons

Since then, the district has rolled out an equity affairs office charged with cultural training, providing support services for families and overseeing a multi-year plan for reducing racial discrepancies in suspension data.

WCPSS spokesman Tim Simmons said Thursday that district leaders are waiting to see the results from their efforts.

“You would hope to see changes in the numbers right away, but you might realistically not expect to see changes right away,” said Simmons. “There’s been a little bit of movement, but not the kind of movement you would hope to see if you were hitting a homerun.”

Simmons points out the equity office’s efforts have not reached every school in the district yet, pointing out the office was created in just 2013.

Commissioner Jessica Holmes

Still, Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes—who led a community discussion of SRO reforms in Rolesville last month—called the latest figures on school resource officers “alarming.” And James Ford, a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year who now serves as program director for the Public School Forum of N.C., a K-12 policy think tank in Raleigh, described the data as “proof of the problem.”

The SRO referrals for African American students in Wake schools dwarf those of white students, district reports show. In the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years, white students accounted for just 22 percent of referrals, despite making up nearly half of the district population.

(Note: Data for the current school year is not yet available, WCPSS officials say).

It’s worth noting that the district reports lack disaggregated data that may indicate whether—as some critics suggest—teachers are treating African American students inappropriately. In other words, are school workers referring black students to SROs over offenses that would be handled differently for students of other races?

Additionally, the county reports show hundreds of cases handled by SROs were settled in adult court, a key point as state lawmakers consider bipartisan “Raise the Age” legislation that would shuttle all cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds to juvenile court.

Critics point out North Carolina is one of the last remaining states prosecuting such cases in an adult court. It feeds the “school to prison pipeline,” they say, a trend that disproportionately dishes out criminal offenses to African American youth for high school transgressions.

“When you look at this information and connect it to the disparity of how many kids that are black sent over by law enforcement, there’s a problem,” says Muhammad. “When you connect that problem with actual lives, what’s happening to these young people?”

Wake school leaders point to some improvements on that front. In 2014-2015, 404 SRO cases in Wake schools, or about 48 percent of all referrals, were dispensed in adult court. But in 2015-2016, that number dropped to 293 cases, or about 35 percent of referrals.

That might be attributed to the district’s equity office, which, officials say, has been collaborating with juvenile courts, the district attorney’s office, mental health providers and advocacy groups to steer youth cases away from adult courts.

Meanwhile, advocates point out racial disparities in school discipline are not isolated to Wake County. State figures consistently show African American students, particularly males, are suspended or expelled at far higher rates than their counterparts.

State officials prescribed enhanced teacher training as one means of assuaging the problem, arguing cultural factors may play a significant part in the discrepancies.

Leaders who spoke to Policy Watch about Wake County’s SRO numbers indicated the same factors may be in play here.

“It is apparent that there is a need for enhanced diversity training and also the need for the community to be more involved with our children and the school system to address the problem,” Holmes told Policy Watch. “We need to bring back the ‘it takes a village’ mentality and not just wait on a bureaucratic fix.”

Wake school board leaders have been under pressure to modify their agreement with 10 different law enforcement agencies, which was already set for its annual review in the coming months. Officials are expected to mull greater training for SROs and teachers and more specificity on campus law enforcement responsibilities.

The controversy comes with emerging research suggesting the nation’s growing law enforcement presence in K-12 settings drives schools leaders to call on law enforcement to handle disciplinary issues best left to classroom personnel.

Sheriff Donnie Harrison

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison could not be reached for an interview this week, but last month he argued school systems should create their own police force, rather than relying on varying agencies with inconsistent practices.

Harrison also pointed out SROs are tasked with an increasingly complicated role, acting as community mentors, counselors and law enforcement at the same time.

“Every time things happen in schools, things are pointed at the police officers,” Harrison complained.

Others have emphasized the need for more adult staff in schools and a focus on students’ needs outside of the classroom too, pointing out some students’ troubled home lives can adversely impact behavior and performance in the classroom.

Ford says he believes “implicit cultural bias” may play a large part in the disparities. “Absolutely, teachers are human beings,” said Ford. “Implicit biases are going to show up. It goes for all of us. Nobody is exempt from that, no matter how we consciously try to correct it.”

Ford added that he witnessed the “full gamut” of SRO behavior when he served as a teacher at Garinger High School, a predominantly minority school in Charlotte, from 2010 to 2015.

[easy-tweet tweet=”“I’ve seen SROs itching to get physical with kids and even provoke kids,” “]

“I’ve seen SROs itching to get physical with kids and even provoke kids,” he said. “I’ve seen SROs that had such authentic and engaging relationships with students that they could talk them down from a potentially explosive situation on the merit of their relationship building. And I’ve also seen SROs who have been negligent, who have not necessarily upheld their end of the bargain.”

Advocates who spoke to Policy Watch say the new Wake County data only reaffirms their support for this year’s “Raise the Age” legislation, which as of Thursday, has been assigned to a House judiciary committee.

Ford says advancing the bill is “absolutely necessary.”

“There’s a reason we have juvenile court,” said Ford. “Because we recognize there’s a difference in the decision-making capacities of a juvenile and an adult. I don’t think there’s any one of us wants to be held accountable for the decisions we made when we were 16.”

Agreed, says Muhammad of the Education Justice Alliance, adding that the Wake school system needs a comprehensive examination of its use of police in schools.

“What are the mechanisms that we’re using right now and are they helping or are they further harming the lives of these young people?” she says. “In the case of these 16 and 17 year olds, it’s a definite harm because now there are criminal records involved. That’s going to follow them for the rest of their lives.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.