WJTV News Channel 12 - RALEIGH: Wake Schools accused of unfair policing in complaint

Wake Schools accused of unfair policing in federal complaint

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Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill
RALEIGH, N.C. -

A complaint filed Wednesday against the Wake County Public School System alleges "a pattern of discrimination and unlawful criminalization" in Wake Schools.

North Carolina's Advocates for Children's Services filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against the Wake County Sheriff's Department, eight police departments in Wake County and the WCPSS, alleging violations under the U.S. Constitution.

The eight police departments named are the Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Garner, Holly Springs, Knightdale, Raleigh and Wake Forest police departments.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said he is unaware of the complaint and therefore could not comment.

A spokeswoman for WCPSS said the system is reviewing the complaint.

The complaint says law enforcement officers are used in Wake County schools to address minor school discipline matters.

"The Wake County Public School System's over-reliance on unregulated school policing practices, often in response to minor infractions of school rules, results in the routine violation of students' education al and constitutional rights," the complaint says. "Specifically, evidence suggests that the rights of students with disabilities and African- American students in the Wake County Public School System are routinely violated."

The complaint says 74 percent of school-based delinquency complaints were black students, while white students received between 17 percent and 23 percent of the complaints.

All eight students named in the complaint are black and seven are students with disabilities.

Travis Williams tells WNCN News he was just trying to get his class schedule on the first day of school in 2011, when a Southeast Raleigh High School resource officer approached him and accused him of trespassing.

"He slammed me on the ground, then picked me up, got his back up to help him to slam me up against a window and then arrested me," Williams said.

The complaint points out that North Carolina is the only state that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when charged with criminal offenses, and then offers no opportunity to return to the juvenile justice system.

"The line between school discipline matters and criminal matters is often blurred in Wake County, with WCPSS staff and law enforcement officers routinely collaborating in the perpetuation of a school-to-prison pipeline, whereby students are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal systems at alarming rates," the complaint says.

"While schools may be justified in permitting law enforcement involvement in response to the most serious and unlawful student misbehaviors, the overwhelming majority of the referrals to court for school-based behavior in Wake County have been triggered by minor student misbehavior."

Some of the offenses the complaint points to as "exceedingly minor" include throwing water balloons, stealing paper from a recycling bin and play-fighting with a friend.

"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," the complaint says.

Beyond criminal charges, the complaint alleges "inadequate policies ... fail to limit the scope of law enforcement authority."

"WCPSS students routinely face excessive and unreasonable uses of force, unlawful searches and interrogations, and harassment at the hands of law enforcement officials," the complaint says. "Student mistreatment by law enforcement officers has been well-documented by student and media accounts that depict an alarming pattern of law enforcement officers being used to address minor misbehavior at school."

The complaint points to examples of "students being handcuffed in crowded cafeterias and hallways; students being pepper-sprayed in the eyes or TASERed in the chest; students being violently tackled to the ground or pushed in to walls, windows, or tables; students suffering persistent and damaging verbal harassment; and students' rights regarding searches and custodial interrogations routinely being violated."

Critics of the complaintants, like former Wake County School Board Chair Ron Margiotta, say complaints like this one will only make it harder for the school system to discipline students.

"We cannot educate students if we can't control what goes on in the schools and in the classrooms," Margiotta told WNCN.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration pressed the nation's schools to abandon what it described as overly zealous discipline policies that send students to court instead of the principal's office.

Attorney General Eric Holder said problems often stem from well intentioned "zero-tolerance" policies that can inject the criminal justice system into school matters.

"A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct," Holder said.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has acknowledged the challenge is finding the proper balance to keep schools safe and orderly.

The administration said that it would attempt to work out voluntary settlements if school disciplinary policies are found to violate federal civil rights laws.

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