Youth Justice Project seeks racial reform in use of suspensions, school resource officers in Durham

By: - January 14, 2021 2:04 pm
Nicholas Brown, a 16-year-old junior at Jordan High School in Durham, discussed his experiences interacting with School Resource Officers. (Screenshot from Zoom presentation)

Nicholas Brown, a junior at Jordan High School in Durham, has had the uncomfortable experience of being followed to class by school resource officers hired by the district who are supposed to make students and staff feel safe. 

Brown, 16, wasn’t doing anything wrong, just moving from one class to another to attend a study session or to take a teacher-approved restroom break. 

“It puts us on guard,” said Brown. “It’s uncomfortable as a Black male to have officers come up to you during the day.” 

Brown and students of color across the district say that SROs see them as suspects and troublemakers based solely on their skin color, even when theyre engaged in routine student activities. 

The “racial profiling” and “targeting,” the students say, harm them academically and mentally. They worry that even an innocuous encounter with an SRO could propel them into the juvenile court system, permanently stain their academic records and foreclose on their futures. 

For students of color, it’s a heavy load, especially when piled on top of the myriad academic and social challenges they already face as high school students. 


Brown is a member of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. This week, the project launched #LiberatetoEducate – an initiative to achieve educational justice in the Durham Public Schools and end the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The American Civil Liberties Union describes the school-to-prison pipeline as a process that funnels children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. 

“Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services.” the ACLU said. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out. 

#LiberateToEducate wants DPS to find a better way to spend the $1 million per year it pays the county sheriff’s office for its deputies to patrol the hallways of Durham schools. 

“SROs are costly, ineffective and harmful to students and their learning environment,” the group says. “Rather than improve safety, research demonstrates that placing police in schools negatively affects school climate.” 

In addition to ending the district’s relationship with SROs, #LiberateToEducate proposes that DPS: 

  • End the use of exclusionary discipline and fully implement school-wide restorative justice programs 
  • Provide students with more choice in course selection and end academic tracking
  • Require all schools to implement culturally relevant curricula
  • Establish mental health spaces and safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ students in schools that are available during and after school hours

“We came up with these demands and we came up with this platform based on our daily experiences,” Brown said.  

More investment in these areas, the #LiberateTo Educate advocates contend, would eliminate the need for SROs. 

The group argues that the presence of SROs increases disorder among students by diminishing the authority of school staff. The practice, they say, also leads to increases in suspension and expulsion for Black students and greater discipline disparities between Black and white students. 

A troubling record

In the 2017-18 school year, Black students composed 44% of Durham Public Schools’ enrollment but accounted for 76.4% of all short-term suspensions and 86% of school-related entries into the criminal justice system, according to the SCSJ’s Racial Equity Report Card.  

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley highlighted some of these troubling consequences of school suspensions and expulsions last August when she helped launch a program known as the School Justice Partnership that works to help keep children out of the criminal justice system. The list includes:

  • Suspensions and expulsions increase the risk that students will drop out of school, repeat a grade or engage in future delinquent behavior. 
  • A single suspension triples the likelihood that a child will enter the juvenile justice system. 
  • Confinement in a juvenile facility increases the risk that a youth will be rearrested as an adult. 
  • A school-based referral can lead to a permanent criminal record, which creates barriers to college financial aid, employment, housing and military eligibility. 

“The truth is that school discipline has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and the thing we want do is to make sure arrest is used in only the most severe offenses,” Beasley said at the time, “Last year [2018], more than 11,000 children were referred to the juvenile justice system from the schools, and only a fraction of those offenses were serious ones.” 

Beasley was defeated in the Nov. 3 General Election, losing a tight race to Paul Newby. Policy Watch was unable to immediately reach the School Justice Partnership office to discuss the program’s future.  

Hillside High School’s Sonia Green, 17, said out-of-school suspensions don’t solve problems. 

“Two of the three most common reasons for discipline in Durham Public Schools are insubordination and disruptive behaviors, and that’s interesting because these two offenses are extremely subjective,” Green said.  

Tyler Whittenberg, the SCSJ’s chief counsel for justice system reform, criticized these suspensions. 

“Students are most impacted by the policies and practices used, not just in Durham Public Schools but across the nation that push students of color out of school and into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems,” Whittenberg said. 

The students say Blacks are treated differently than their white peers even though research shows that Black students do not misbehave at higher rates. 

“White students, at least at Jordan High School, have very little interaction with school resource officers,” Brown said. “To them, they’re there just kind of there for their protection.”  

Even when SROs try to interact with Black students in a positive way, it often fails, Brown said. 

“It does the opposite of what they intend it to do,” Brown said. 

The murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and other instances in which unarmed Black men and women were killed by police, exposed a widening distrust of law enforcement officers among Blacks and sparked months of civil unrest throughout America’s cities. 

The Durham school system issued this statement at the height of the unrest as students and community activists called on district leaders to remove SROs from schools: 

In light of recent nationwide events of racism and overreach in law enforcement, we understand the concerns that have been expressed by some of our students and community. We are aware of the Youth Justice Project’s call to conduct a thorough Impact Assessment of our SRO program by the end of the 2020-21 school year and we are open to that. We would also be happy to participate in a community forum to learn from our stakeholders and develop solutions to ensure the safety and security of our students. Transparency is essential to building trust in our community.” 

Meanwhile, Green says her experiences with SROs at predominately Black Hillside High have been neither positive nor negative. 

But she has seldom seen SROs performing the duties supporters say they’re hired to do. 

“When there are fights or altercations between students in the hallways, people say that’s what SROs are there for, to help break those things up and make sure they don’t escalate,” Green said. “I’ve only ever seen teachers and staff break up fights.” 

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.