On his first day of eleventh grade in the fall of 2011, a young man identified in a federal complaint as T.W. arrived at Southeast Raleigh High School, eager to begin a productive, positive year. He greeted his new principal and waited in line with his classmates to pick up his schedule.
While he waited, a School Resource Officer—a sworn, fully certified police officer with the authority to arrest students—started asking T.W. questions.
"What's your name?"
"Are you a student?"
"Are you trying to play me in front of your boys?"
When T.W. didn't respond, the officer allegedly pulled his arm behind his back. A second officer grabbed T.W.'s other arm and they threw him against a window and handcuffed him as students and staff looked on, according to the complaint.
T.W. is one of eight students in Wake County Public Schools who have been named in a Department of Justice complaint brought by Legal Aid North Carolina against the school system, the Wake County sheriff's department and eight municipal police departments.
The complaint alleges that resource officers are violating students' rights, particularly African Americans and kids with disabilities.
According to the complaint, Wake County resource officers, who have no special training to deal with adolescents, and armed security guards from AlliedBarton—a security company that contracts with the Wake school system for more than $1 million a year—use Tasers on students at school and spatter pepper spray in their faces.
They tackle kids to the ground, slam them into walls and handcuff them in front of their peers. When they don't use weapons or physical force, some officers verbally harass the students they're charged with protecting.
A number of other groups like the N.C. Justice Center, the NAACP, the ACLU, as well as professors and attorneys across the Triangle, have signed onto the complaint.
The Wake school system sent the INDY a statement saying it is reviewing the complaint. The Wake County sheriff's department and Raleigh Police Department declined to comment since the complaint is pending with the U.S. Justice Department.
T.W. is African American, like all of the students named in the complaint. According to demographics reports from The Wake school system, in the last five years African-American students have received 74 percent of the school-based delinquency complaints and are 16 times more likely than white students to be suspended.
"The disparities are massive," says Jennifer Story, an attorney at Legal Aid N.C. "African-American students are overwhelmingly targeted by these practices and these kids are going down a path they're never going to be able to get out of."
The complaint states that the same resource officer harassed T.W. on another occasion, while the student was walking into school after he missed his bus.
"I ... actually did not want to go to school after that," T.W. told an attorney after the incident. "At this point I am feeling uncomfortable going to my own school that I have been attending for four years. I wish the SRO would leave me alone."
The students' offenses have largely been minor infractions: throwing water balloons, cutting in line, play-fighting, or in T.W.'s case, looking "too old" to be a student.
"They're watching over you like you're dead meat and they're vultures," says Tayvon, a senior at Knightdale High.
In the most serious case, a student punched a classmate after the boy called him a "Nigger" and hit him first; the student then left immediately to avoid further conflict.
When he returned to school the next day, he was detained and interrogated by a resource officer. He was never read his Miranda rights or allowed to call his guardian.
The student was recommended for long-term suspension and the resource officer filed a delinquency complaint against him; the student took a plea deal, accepting six months' probation and a delinquency violation on his permanent record.
Only a vague document called a "Memorandum of Understanding" that exists between the school system and law enforcement agencies governs the actions of officers in Wake County schools, allowing them to "enforce criminal law" and "take appropriate enforcement action on criminal matters as necessary."
The extent to which cops can intervene is left up to the police departments themselves to determine.
North Carolina is the only state in the country that treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in every circumstance, with no option to be tried in juvenile court for minor offenses.
Students rack up arrest records and adult criminal charges that can haunt them for the rest of their lives. Even if charges are ultimately dismissed, expunging an arrest record is a costly and time-consuming process.
"The reality is, it's cheaper for the school system and the law enforcement agencies to dump kids on the court system because you file a complaint and then they become the court's responsibility," says Jason Langberg, an attorney at Legal Aid N.C. "The courts are becoming a dumping ground for the school system that doesn't have the resources to treat the underlying causes of misbehavior."
The arrests and undue suspension rates (a 2010 Duke University study ranked North Carolina as having the third-highest suspension rate in the nation) create an atmosphere that Langberg calls "the perfect storm for the school-to-prison pipeline."
He says an increasing percentage of all delinquency complaints in Wake County are school-based, but there is no data around how many kids are sent into the adult criminal justice system.
"Neither the district, nor the law enforcement officers bother to keep that data, which is awful," Langberg said. "We don't know whether some schools are referring a thousand kids a year and need a remedial action plan, or if schools aren't referring any kids and should be lifted up as examples. It's as easy as giving the SRO a clipboard and tallying up the number of referrals, but they're not bothering to collect it."
Langberg says police officers in middle schools and high schools started becoming more commonplace in the mid-'90s, after events like the Columbine shosoting brought public attention to school safety "without really putting school safety issues into perspective."
"The public was saturated with these images of school shootings and this myth around juvenile super-predators," said Langberg. "I think it's the exception now not to have (a police officer in school) whereas just 15 years ago it was the exception to have one."
As shocking as it is that weapons are used against students in Wake County schools, student advocates from Wake County, known as N.C. HEAT, talk about their experiences with resource officers and armed security guards as if they are everyday occurrences.
"I've seen at least one person get tazered every year," says Tayvon, an N.C. HEAT member. "These two girls were fighting and they tazered one of the girls and she fell down the steps. She was all messed up. And another girl was yelling at someone and they tazered her and she had a seizure."
At the Wake County school board meeting last month, Tayvon told board members about his twin brother who got into a fight in ninth grade.
"The same SRO that dealt with that situation is telling my brother that he would tackle him again if he ever stepped out of line," he said. "We should feel safe around SROs. We should feel that we are being protected ... If we have to keep SROs, we should train them on how to deal with these situations in school."
Qasima, an N.C. HEAT member and senior at Cary High, agrees. "The presence of cops in our school is traumatizing to students," she said. "It's not conducive to learning. It's not conducive to safety. It militarizes our learning environment."
The Wake County complaint also contains a strong racial element. White students have made up half of the total student population but have received only between 17 and 23 percent of the school-based delinquency complaints.
Langberg and Story say the response from school administrators for years has been that their hands are tied on the issue. They say the purpose of the complaint is to establish reasonable limitations—more training, screening, accountability and restrictions—on police officers assigned to protect schools.
But Christine Kushner, chair of the Wake County School Board, said that security officers in the school system actually do receive significant training in how to handle student discipline issues.
Kushner said the board has been working to address policy issues that contribute to the suspension rates, and that long- and short-term suspensions have decreased by 66 and 26 percent respectively, since the 2008–2009 school year.
But she acknowledged that the school-to-prison pipeline is an ongoing problem. "The key focus we need to have is on improving school climate and addressing mental health issues and counselling," Kushner said. "Since 2008, since state and local budget cuts, those positions suffered. I want to look at funding for more psychologists, counselors and social workers. Focusing on school climate is the place we will get the biggest, most positive, results."
The charges against T.W. were dismissed in Wake County court. The resource officer testified that he approached T.W. because he looked older than the other kids. The judge told the officer, "That's just like walking on the sidewalk while being black."
When T.W.'s mother asked for someone to be held accountable, the Raleigh Police Department justified the resource officer's actions as standard procedure.
T.W. did not finish high school. He is working to get his GED at Wake Tech and sees a therapist twice a week.
"He's on medication directly related to what happened in his high school," his mother said. "He has depression, trust issues, self-esteem issues; he doesn't trust anyone. He is afraid of the police. He's afraid to go to the store. His therapist says he is scared the police are following him."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A force to be reckoned with"