At 7:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, I began to receive a flurry of text messages from Selina, a 17-year-old high school student in Wake County, North Carolina. “Jen, something happened on the school bus. The SRO (School Resource Officer) wants to take me to jail.”
Within minutes, I was able to speak with Officer Davis, an SRO stationed full-time at a Wake County high school. He explained that there had been an argument between Selina and another student on the bus, and that the argument allegedly became physical after the student made lewd and harassing comments about Selina’s boyfriend. No serious injuries resulted from the incident and Selina’s conduct was alleged to have constituted only a level two infraction of the school system’s five-tier Code of Conduct. Yet, he informed me that he would be taking Selina to jail.
“Please just let me come pick her up,” I entreated the officer. “I am getting into my car right now and can be there within 25 minutes.” “The paperwork has already been filled out,” he said. “She needs to learn a lesson.”
Those words hung in the air as he hung up the phone, placed handcuffs on Selina, led her through crowded hallways filled with her classmates, placed her in a police cruiser, and transported her to the Wake County Detention Center, which houses adults.
I can only assume (or perhaps just hope) that the officer anticipated Selina would go through the booking process, be “scared straight” by the experience, and then would be bailed out by her family within a matter of hours. However, the officer’s deliberate choice to criminalize Selina’s behavior rather than allow it to be treated as a school disciplinary matter ultimately led to Selina being incarcerated for a staggering 20 days.
For 20 days, Selina remained incarcerated alongside adult women charged with serious drug offenses and even attempted murder. For 20 days, the bubbly high school senior who many affectionately call “NaNa” was referred to simply as “Number 34.” For just shy of three weeks, Selina had little privacy, even facing routine strip searches following visitations with her attorneys or case managers.
Selina faced this shockingly harsh consequence because she happens to be a 17-year-old in North Carolina, the only state that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds in every circumstance as adults in the criminal justice system. Had the very same incident occurred a year and a half earlier, she would have been age 15, and thus sent into the juvenile delinquency system, where the focus would have been on implementing rehabilitative services. Had she been a few months older, Selina would have been age 18, and could have simply walked out of jail once the judge unsecured her bond at her first appearance. However, as a 17-year-old, Selina found herself in a sinister period of limbo where she was an “adult” for prosecutorial purposes, but a “minor” under all other areas of the law.
Selina’s situation was further complicated by the fact that she is a youth in foster care and in state custody; her legal guardian is Wake County Human Services. Due to budget cuts to the child welfare system in North Carolina, placement options for youth in foster care are ever decreasing. The filing of criminal charges against Selina rendered her ineligible for the majority of the already limited community-based foster care settings in Raleigh. Consequently, jail became Selina’s 20-day interim foster care placement because Wake County Human Services, her legal guardian, refused to pick her up while they searched for another place for her to live.
Ultimately, Selina faced these repercussions because the SRO chose to treat her behavior as “criminal” rather than a school discipline matter that could have been more appropriately dealt with by school administrators.
Notably, the week after the bus incident, a school-based team met to determine the most appropriate school-based consequence. Upon examination of the underlying circumstances, it was determined that Selina responded to the other student following extensive provocation, and that her actions were manifestations of the trauma that she suffered over the course of a lifetime of physical abuse and years of instability in the foster care system. Accordingly, her school team determined that an out-of-school suspension was not appropriate and that, instead, additional supports needed to be put in place for Selina to enable her to be successful.
Yet Selina remained incarcerated for 20 days.
Unfortunately, Selina’s story is not an anomaly. Instead, students across Wake County and the country are increasingly being referred to court and taken to jail for minor school-based misbehavior. Representing the most direct school-to-prison pipeline path, school-based referrals to court are the most prominent in districts like Wake County where SROs are given broad deference to intervene and criminalize student misbehavior.
Across the country, districts are taking bold steps to stop students like Selina from being unnecessarily pushed into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,
including placing clear, objective limits on SRO involvement in minor school discipline matters and requiring the use of therapeutic alternatives to court referrals. In North Carolina, where 16- and 17-year-olds are being pushed directly out of schools and into the criminal system, this type of bold reform is much needed and long overdue.
I visited Selina during her period of incarceration and asked her what “lesson” Officer Davis ultimately taught her by taking her to jail. She replied simply, “That I’m disposable, and that this is where they expect me to end up.” This is the same message that all of our students will continue to receive until we stop allowing our schools and SROs to treat kids as though they are criminals.
Jennifer Story is an Education Justice Advocate in North Carolina