Several civil rights groups filed a federal complaint Wednesday charging that police officers who work in Wake County schools routinely violate the Constitutional rights of minority students.
The complaint contends that the school system’s policing policies “unnecessarily and unlawfully punish and criminalize minor misbehaviors and disproportionately harm African-American students and students with disabilities.” The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate policing in North Carolina’s largest school system.
The complaint was filed the same day that the cable news channel Al Jazeera America’s “America Tonight” show aired a segment that highlights a May incident at Enloe High School where Raleigh police arrested seven students while responding to a water-balloon fight. Police were called to the scene amid rumors that the balloons might be filled with noxious substances, not just water.
“An educational environment that treats water-balloon-throwing as seriously as a crime does not teach discipline or self-discipline; rather, it engenders distrust and hopelessness,” according to the complaint filed by Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates For Children’s Services.
The complaint was filed against the school system and the nine law-enforcement agencies that assign school resource officers to police the schools. Wake County school officials declined comment on the charges in the complaint, which asks that the system change policies that, the groups say, allow for discrimination.
“Leadership of the Wake County Public School System is reviewing the Department of Justice complaint at this time,” a statement from the school system said.
Spokesmen for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office and the Raleigh Police Department said they couldn’t comment because their agencies had not yet received copies of the complaint.
The complaint contends that the school system doesn’t set minimum training standards for school resource officers. The complaint charges that “this results in students being subjected to unconstitutional and unlawful treatment, including unreasonable and excessive use of force, unlawful searches, interrogations, arrests, and harassment.”
The complaint cites statistics to back a claim that students wind up too often in the criminal justice system. Of all delinquency complaints filed in Wake County during the 2012-13 school year, 42 percent took place at schools.
For 2011-12, 90 percent of the 763 school-based complaints were based on alleged misdemeanor offenses, the complaint says.
“The alleged ‘crimes’ for which WCPSS students are routinely being pushed into the juvenile and criminal system are exceedingly minor and include offenses such as throwing water balloons, stealing paper from a recycling bin and play-fighting with a friend,” according to the complaint.
The complaint says that African-American students accounted for 74.4 percent of school-based delinquency complaints but only about 25 percent of the school system’s population.
It’s especially a concern, the complaint says, because North Carolina charges 16-year-olds as adults.
The complaint was filed on behalf of eight African-American students, seven of whom are classified as having disabilities, who were arrested by police at school.
The complaint comes after years of questions from advocacy groups about the way Wake handles school policing.
“The school system has been saying that they can’t tell the officers what to do because they don’t work for them,” said Jason Langberg, an attorney for Advocates For Children’s Services. “But they’re on the hook when things don’t go well.”
Other complainants include the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children, N.C. HEAT, the North Carolina Justice Center, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration issued new guidelines to schools calling for them to ease up on zero tolerance policies and not to arrest students for minor disciplinary infractions. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race.
“What’s happening in Wake County is something that the Department of Justice is expressly warning schools to stop doing,” said Lisa Thurau, executive director of Massachusetts-based Strategies for Youth.