Federal complaint claims unfair policing policies in Wake County schools

Posted January 22, 2014
Updated March 27, 2014

— 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.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • glarg Jan 24, 2014

    These really sound like the kind of bright young go getters we need to keep in school disrupting classes that other people's kids are in.

    Travis Williams, with grey in his beard, is asked if he is a student and a fight erupts? He is censoring out where he mouthed off.

    Some 20 year old gets in a fight with the coach?

    Water balloon fights? " carving knives"? How is a good kid supposed to learn in this environment?

  • Jump1 Jan 24, 2014

    This is the new buzz word for law suits, disproportionately harm African-American students and students with disabilities." Williams looks like he should be in college..

  • djofraleigh Jan 24, 2014

    Notice that the complaint doesn't concern itself with sexism in that 90% of those arrested are males. How is that?

  • RGMTRocks Jan 23, 2014

    How does one get dressed without realizing (forgetting) that there's a carving knife in his pocket? I don't think I buy that story Mama! Kind of like the kid that I heard about the other day who 'didn't know' he had brought a .45 pistol to school? C'mon! SOME SRO's, as with SOME LEO's in general, are in the job because they're on a power trip and they prey on the weak. Perhaps we should be checking them out more carefully, especially before placing them at a school. That being said, the overall statistic alone doesn't and shouldn't suggest bias because you must LOOK proportionately at which groups REALLY ARE committing the most crimes - then go address THAT problem. hmmm, don't even get me started on that one.....

  • pdolan6 Jan 23, 2014

    In one incident a coach grabs a student and the police are blamed. In another a kid forgets a cutting tool that was in his pocket. What if he forgot there was a gun in his bookbag would the attorneys be fighting as hard for him or if he got in to a fight and cut someone? I guess we can blame the spoon for making people fat next. The police are not wrong ALL the time.

  • btneast Jan 23, 2014

    [bIs standing in line for your schedule breaking a rule? Is having a disagreement (without any aggression or profanity) breaking a rule? Is being assaulted by a group of students breaking a rule requiring pepper spray? ][/b] You don't really think what the students say happened is the whole story, do you? Of course, they did nothing ANY altercation, there are 3 sides....with the 3rd one being a hybrid of the two opposing views, which is the real truth. Never make a judgement off of only one person's side.

  • LuvLivingInCary Jan 23, 2014

    They need to get the SRO's out of the schools. They do a lot of good but they also abuse their roles and that is the crux of this suit. WCPSS is very quietly keeping their SRO's missteps quite and the only way this stuff gets out in the open and other parents come forward is for a federal complaint. Can't wait to tell my story to the attorneys in this case with my special needs kid.

  • terri1of8 Jan 23, 2014

    I'm not sure I understand the comments that describe how you won't get in trouble if you don't break the rules. Is standing in line for your schedule breaking a rule? Is having a disagreement (without any aggression or profanity) breaking a rule? Is being assaulted by a group of students breaking a rule requiring pepper spray?

    Did any of you read this article? Please do. Reading is fundamental, folks. I am interested in knowing who all of the groups are behind this, though. I wish the article had been more specific. I believe a Federal complaint will get to the bottom of whether or not race and disability play a role in whether or not a student is treated fairly. This is what our justice system is for - we shouldn't complain because someone alleges something with lots of evidence in their favor. Really.

  • piratepeople2 Jan 23, 2014

    I am sick of the race card being played over and over again and am so glad to see the posters to this story are in agreement that it has nothing to do with race.

  • SaveEnergyMan Jan 22, 2014

    I'm guessing males commit more of these offenses than females, and that females are the ones referring these cases for discipline more often. Sounds like a case for gender discrimination - doesn't it?

    See how ridiculous that sounds. Is it a correlation or causal? Same with this case. More blacks are disciplined because they commit more offenses. Let's fix the problem by getting Barber and the like to focus on family and education - rather than blaming someone else.