ACLU of North Carolina report: Black students are the subject of disorderly conduct complaints at four times the rate of white counterparts

By: - October 20, 2023 7:30 am
Students heading to class

(Photo: Getty Images)

From 2017 to 2023, statewide law enforcement and school staff filed school-based complaints of disorderly conduct against Black students at four times the rate of their white counterparts, according to a new report by the ACLU of North Carolina. And the disparity in the rate of referrals for disorderly conduct in schools is worse for many counties, where adults refer Black students at a rate of 23 to 42 times more than their white classmates, researchers found.

“It is well-established that Black students are not generally more likely to misbehave than other students, even after accounting for different socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, adults are far more likely to punish Black students, and to apply more severe punishment, than white students for similar conduct,” Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in a statement.

The result, Hinger said, is that Black students are being “over-criminalized, physically and mentally harmed, and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline every year.”

The ACLU published The Consequences of Cops in North Carolina Schools,” during “National Safe Schools Week.” The report details what the ACLU contends is the “arbitrary and discriminatory nature” of law enforcement referrals. The researchers also question the wisdom of the state spending millions of dollars to place armed law enforcement officers in schools, despite what the authors say is “clear evidence that police have a negative impact on students and school environments.”

The  researchers take aim at North Carolina’s “disorderly conduct in schools” law, which makes it a crime to “disrupt, disturb, or interfere with teaching.”

“The law gives police officers discretion to define when, and under what circumstances, typical childhood conduct crosses the line into criminal behavior, the researchers said. “Laws that don’t provide clear standards are particularly susceptible to biases, implicit or otherwise, which can shape a police officer or administrator’s perceptions of a child’s intent and culpability when disruptive behaviors occur, influencing the nature and severity of the responses to the conduct.”

School districts and officials must ensure that students are supported by prioritizing funding for mental health providers. Students can then receive evidence-based assessment and interventions when struggling with mental and behavioral needs, the researchers said. They noted that North Carolina recently ranked 42nd out of 50 states for overall youth mental health, yet data show that one school psychologist can serve up to 2,970 students, nearly six times the number of students that is recommended.

“Prioritizing funding for police officers over funding for counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and community health workers is a policy choice that has had grave consequences for North Carolina’s children, especially Black youth and students with disabilities,” said Michele Delgado, staff attorney at the ACLU of NC. “Mental health concerns and suicide for Black youth have been increasing, in part because of police violence, overt racism, and the stressors caused by structural racism.”

The Education Justice Alliance (EJA) and partner organizations have developed an intake complaint form North Carolina students and families can use to submit and monitor formal complaints against school police officers and school security guards who harm and violate students’ rights during school or while participating in school-related activities.

To reduce complaints of disorderly conduct, the ACLU recommends that school districts:

  • Decriminalize normal childish behavior, including repealing the “disorderly conduct in schools” law, which funnels students, particularly Black students and students with disabilities, into the criminal legal system.
  • End the regular presence of law enforcement in schools, which harm students’ education in numerous ways and particularly burdens students of color and students with disabilities.
  • Invest in and expand state and local partnerships to increase the availability and number of culturally affirming school-based mental health providers.
  • Strengthen and further develop partnerships with community health workers to support mental health for youth.
  • Require equity assessments of police impact, and ensure accurate reporting of data.

The full report, which includes the full list of recommendations, can be found online here:

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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.