A New Year; Same Old Story in Wake County

Justice System Reform

“This incident is more about how little this officer, and so many officers around the country, value black bodies, black health, black safety and security.”

Shaun King, NY Daily News, Jan. 4, 2017

Earlier this week, a Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) school resource officer (SRO) welcomed a student back from winter break by picking her up and slamming her onto the ground. Jasmine Darwin, a one hundred-pound, African American student at Rolesville High School, was reportedly attempting to defend her sister and break up a fight. A brief, viral video of the incident shows Rolesville Police Officer Ruben De Los Santos grabbing Jasmine from behind, lifting her up to his chest, slamming her on the concrete cafeteria floor, jerking her limp body up by the arm, and ushering her out of view.

De Los Santos was placed on paid administrative leave. His body camera video of the confrontation hasn’t been released. Rolesville Police Chief Bobby Langston told reporters that the State Bureau of Investigation has been called in to review the incident. Dhedra Lassiter, the principal at Rolesville High School, issued a letter saying, “I, like many of you, am deeply concerned about what I saw in the video.” Jasmine’s mother, Desiree Harrison, said she took her daughter to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion.

For education justice advocates familiar with WCPSS, the SRO’s conduct was infuriating and exasperating, but not surprising.

Stories of excessive force by SROs – typically against African American students – are seemingly being reported from across the country with increasing regularity. In Columbia, South Carolina, an SRO flipped an African American student out of her desk, dragged and threw her, and handcuffed her. In Round Rock, Texas, an SRO choked an African American student and slammed him to the ground. In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, an SRO put an African American student in a chokehold and slammed him to the ground. In Baltimore, Maryland, an SRO slapped and kicked an African American student. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an SRO was accused of punching an African American student in the face, slamming him to the floor, and choking him; he then forced a student to delete a video of the incident. In Las Vegas, Nevada, an SRO was indicted for assaulting an African American student (striking her with a baton and slamming her into a wall and the floor), and then attempting to cover it up. In St. Paul, Minnesota, an SRO shot a 5’2”, African American teen with chemical spray, struck him twice in the leg, and handcuffed him.

And now Wake County. Again.

WCPSS doesn’t publish information about its security apparatus. However, in August 2013, Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS) published a report titled, The State of the School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Wake County Public School System. ACS reported that, in addition to its own Security Department with former law enforcement officers and over 60 private security guards, WCPSS also contracted with eight local police departments and the county sheriff’s department to station over 60 law enforcement officers in schools full-time. Basically, every middle and high school had at least one police officer or sheriff’s deputy patrolling the halls.

Such heavy policing costs taxpayers millions annually. The cost for each SRO is over $80,000 per year. Meanwhile, WCPSS faced a $17.5 million budget shortfall last year. Students already lack adequate supports. For instance, the ratios for guidance counselors in WCPSS is about one for every 637 elementary school students, 374 middle school students, and 391 high school students. With austerity and privatization wreaking havoc on public education, districts must carefully prioritize proven, developmentally appropriate, cost effective school safety measures, like counselors, positive behavioral interventions and supports, and restorative justice. Yet, like clockwork, without any meaningful program evaluation, WCPSS renews its high-priced SRO contracts.

Wake County is an example of the devastating consequences that often result from school policing.

During 2014-2015, Wake County SROs filed 850 referrals against students, nearly half of which were to adult criminal court. See Figure 1. More than a quarter of all juvenile delinquency complaints in Wake County were school-based. The majority of referrals (69%) were filed against African American students, even though they were only 24% of the total student population. See Figure 2. Rolesville Police Department SROs at Rolesville High School filed 23 referrals to juvenile delinquency or adult criminal court, 82.6% of which were against African American students; the school was only 40.8% African American. Worse yet, SRO referrals are just one of the many ways that African American students are disproportionately pushed out of WCPSS and onto a path to prison. See Figure 3. For example, in 2014-15, the out-of-school suspension rate for African American students is six times higher than the rate for white students.

Additionally, WCPSS has had its fair share of SROs using force on students, including spraying students with chemicals and electrocuting them. For example, in October 2008, an SRO repeatedly used a TASER on a ninth grade student who had severe post-traumatic stress disorder, causing the student’s lung to collapse. In May 2012, the Town of Cary settled the case for $12,000. In June 2009, an SRO used pepper spray on students in a middle school cafeteria. In September 2010, an SRO used pepper spray on students in a crowded cafeteria. Approximately 15 students complained of secondary exposure to the pepper spray and received on-scene treatment by EMS. Three of the students were transported to a hospital for further observation. In August 2010, an SRO used a TASER on a middle school female student. In August 2016, news surfaced that, at the end of the 2015-16 school year, an SRO used a TASER on a student while sitting on top of and fully restraining him. These are just some of the incidents that made the news. WCPSS doesn’t collect or publish any data about the use of force.

The incident at Rolesville High School also isn’t the first time school policing in WCPSS has made national news. For instance, in May 2013, after a water balloon fight, seven students ages 16 and 17 were arrested and taken to adult jail; an officer injured a 15-year-old student by tackling him to the sidewalk; and a parent of a student at the school was arrested for trespassing. Three of the boys stayed in jail overnight; one was held on $3,000 bail. All of the students and the parent were African American. In January 2014, a story surfaced of a WCPSS SRO who twisted an African American’s student’s arm behind his back, pushed him over a dividing wall, and led him out of the cafeteria in handcuffs; all because the student cut in line and refused to move. Then, in March 2014, an SRO arrested a 17-year-old foster child who was in a fight. She then languished in an adult jail for weeks. Most recently, in May 2016, WCPSS made news again after an SRO interrupted class, subjected a 15-year-old student to “sniff tests,” accused her of smelling like marijuana, and searched her. Not only was she humiliated, but she was also suspended, despite the SRO finding nothing during the search and the student passing a drug test the same day. After local activists fought for the student, the suspension was finally overturned by the school board. Just three months ago, a Rolesville High School student was pepper sprayed, tackled to the ground, kneeled on, and handcuffed while screaming in pain.

For years, advocates have pleaded with WCPSS to implement comprehensive school policing reforms, or eliminate SROs altogether. They have presented data, research, and recommendations in guidesissue briefswhite papers, and reports; produced a documentary about the district’s school-to-prison pipeline; filed grievances against SROs; filed federal civil rights complaints with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education and with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging racial discrimination in school policing; met with individual school board members and testified at school board meetings; and issued press releasesheld press conferences, and organized marches.

Advocates were hopeful in early 2013, when WCPSS initiated a “Task Force for Creating Safer Schools in Wake County.” However, it was co-chaired by two law enforcement officers and didn’t include any students, low-income parents, or guidance counselors. Ultimately, the co-chairs refused to allow the Task Force to evaluate the use of SROs or consider information and recommendations related to school policing, and then Sheriff Donnie Harrison simply disregarded the group’s recommendations and made his own to the school board.

Finally, in June 2014, the WCPSS Board of Education approved an improved memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the district and local law enforcement agencies that supply SROs. Wake County also took a positive step forward when it implemented a program to divert students ages 16 to 18 who commit nonviolent misdemeanors away from the adult criminal system.

However, the changes still didn’t go nearly far enough. For example, the current MOU fails to prioritize the use of constructive alternatives to court referrals for non-serious “criminal” offenses at school; fails to create a meaningful, readily-accessible, school-based complaint process for students and parents; fails to require that education and training be provided for students and parents on the terms of the MOU and their rights related to school policing; and fails to create meaningful, ongoing opportunities for students, parents, and community advocates to be engaged in monitoring and improving the SRO program. Importantly, the MOU failed to meaningfully define “school discipline matters” versus “criminal matters,” and continued to grant SROs alarmingly broad authority to treat minor school-based misbehavior as criminal. A group of ten advocacy organizations brought these issues, and many others – including problems related to searches, questioning, and use of force – to the attention of policymakers in a detailed letter, but were largely ignored.

The MOU is set to expire in June 2017. However, the day following the attack on Jasmine Darwin at Rolesville High School, a spokesperson for WCPSS said, “We’re looking at the memorandum of understanding in terms of the context of the incident and seeing if any actions need to be taken.” Once again, Wake County is presented with an opportunity to get it right. Hopefully this time, local leaders will make reforms truly comprehensive, or better yet, take the smart and simple path to safety – eliminate the SRO program altogether and reinvest in supporting students and positive school climate.

Jason Langberg is an education and youth justice advocate. He fought to dismantle Wake County’s school-to-prison pipeline from 2009 to 2015, and helped start the Youth Justice Project.

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