Federal complaint claims unfair policing policies in Wake County schools
Posted January 22, 2014
Updated March 27, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Travis Williams was starting his junior year at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School, standing in line waiting for his class schedule, when he was approached by a school resource officer who didn't believe he was a student at the school.
"He grabbed me and slammed me on the ground," Williams said of the 2011 incident. "I was arrested and charged with trespassing."
A charged that was later dropped, he said.
Williams is part of a complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice claiming school policing policies and practices in the Wake County Public School System "unnecessarily and unlawfully punish and criminalize minor misbehaviors and disproportionately harm African-American students and students with disabilities."
Legal Aid of North Carolina's Advocate for Children Services and more than a dozen other groups filed the complaint against the school system, the Wake County Sheriff's Office and eight police departments in Wake County, saying law enforcement officers are routinely used at schools to address minor discipline matters, such as throwing water balloons, stealing paper from a recycling bin and play-fighting with friends.
"People need to have consequences, but getting a criminal record is not a consequence that help anyone," said Jennifer Story, an attorney with Advocate for Children Services. "You still leave these students with these long-lasting, serious implications for their future education, for their employment, for their lives."
In fiscal year 2011-12, the most recent year for which this data is available, 90 percent of the 763 school-based delinquency complaints, all of which were filed against students age 15 and younger, were for allegations of misdemeanor activity, according to the complaint.
"Within this subset of misdemeanor offenses, it has been the experience of the complainants that the alleged 'crimes' for which WCPSS students are routinely being pushed into the juvenile an criminal systems are exceedingly minor," the complaint states.
The 74-page document describes the experiences of eight students who claim excessive force was used.
In one case, the group claims, a school resource officer used pepper spray on a 16-year-old student with a disability while he was being assaulted by a group of students. He appeared in juvenile court and was put on probation for nine months and now tries to avoid contact with the SRO at his school.
A 20-year-old black student with a disability had a disagreement with a student in September and was accused by a coach of threatening the student. The complaint states that, when he walked away, the coach grabbed him from behind and held him in a bear hug before slamming him against the wall. He was arrested, but never told his Miranda rights, and ended up spending three nights in jail for an alleged assault that could have been avoided. His criminal case is still pending.
Officers at Enloe High School were investigating a water balloon fight when Lynn Perry's son was detained and searched.
She said her son wasn't involved.
"I was told by witnesses he was thrown over a rail," she said.
Her son was arrested for having a weapon at school – a carving knife he used at home that he forgot was in his pocket.
The case was later dismissed, she said.
"It leaves damage on the kids because they do not know who to trust," Perry said.
Wake County schools, the Wake County Sheriff's Office and Raleigh police all said they could not comment on the complaint because they either haven't received it or are reviewing it.