Thursday, January 30, 2014
Complaint Challenges Policing Practices in Wake County, NC Schools Against African-American and Special Needs Students
We have seen reassessments of zero-tolerance policies at the DOJ, as Derek reported recently here, with the State of Maryland as a standout for creating more sensible protocols to deal with non-violent student misconduct. The fallout from zero tolerance continues, however, as a complaint filed with the DOJ this week against Wake County schools and several North Carolina law enforcement agencies shows. The complaint alleges that the Wake County school system and school resource officers (SROs) violated students' rights under Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under Section 504, and under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint, filed by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of eight black schoolchildren who were receiving special needs services, alleges that "[t]he 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’ educational and constitutional rights," particularly "those of students with disabilities and African-American students." The harmful impact of treating minor school infractions as crimes, the Legal Aid points out, is exacerbated in North Carolina because it is "the only state that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds, in every circumstance, as adults when charged with criminal offenses, and then denies them the possibility of returning to the juvenile system regardless of the nature of the offense."
One plaintiff's experience with SROs reads like a criminal procedure law exam issue spotter: T.W., while standing in line for his schedule on the first day of 11th grade, was questioned by an officer about whether T.W. attended the high school. The officer then asked T.W. his name and apparently did not like the way that the student said it. T.W. was immediately placed in handcuffs by two officers. The complaint then describes what followed:
T.W. was then taken to the principal’s office where the SRO searched T.W. and said something to the effect of, “I love to find drugs.” Other than that flippant comment, the SRO offered no information regarding how he had reasonable suspicion to suspect T.W. had drugs in his possession. Nonetheless, the SRO continued the search, making T.W. take off his shoes and hand over his wallet, and then patted him down. The SRO then interrogated T.W. At no point was T.W. read his Miranda rights. Instead, the SRO continuously made statements to T.W., such as: “If you help me, I can help you;” “If you give a tip that leads to arrest, you can get paid;” “When you come to school your rights are forfeited.” During the course of the illegal search, the SRO found a lighter in T.W.’s pocket. The principal suspended T.W. out-of-school for two school days and the SRO finished his attack against T.W. with a citation to adult criminal court for interfering with a police investigation.
T.W.’s mother filed a grievance with the school regarding the SRO’s mistreatment of her son. However, she realized that her efforts to convince the principal to remedy the situation were futile as he asserted that he had no control over SROs. So, that afternoon she went to the Raleigh Police Department and filed an Internal Affairs complaint against the SRO. Months later she received a form letter with no individualized findings, stating only that the department viewed the SROs actions to be “proper conduct” consistent with Department policies and training.
After the grievances were filed, the SRO continued to harass T.W. A few weeks after the incident, T.W. missed the school bus. While T.W. was walking to school the SRO pulled up beside him in his patrol car. He pointed a video camera at T.W. and asked T.W. why he was late for school. T.W. explained that he had missed the bus. The SRO said something to the effect of, “You better not have cigarettes or you’ll get in trouble, and you get rid of that lighter.”
Ultimately, T.W. and his mother had to appear in court at least four times as a result of the initial incident at school. ... At one of the court appearances, the SRO testified that the reason he approached T.W. while he was in line to get his schedule was because he looked older than the other kids. The judge responded, “That’s just like walking on the sidewalk while being black.” All charges were subsequently dropped, and the case was dismissed. However, unfortunately, T.W. never finished high school, in part due to the trauma caused by school policing policies and practices in Wake County.
Read the complaint here.