A draft agreement that sets campus police policy in North Carolina’s largest school system has yet to be publicly released, but the much anticipated document is already fetching criticism from youth justice advocates.
That comes with school board members in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) expected to hold a June 20 vote on a revised “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with 11 local law enforcement agencies that, based on a draft obtained by Policy Watch this week, includes limited changes to district policies and eschews many of the broad calls for reforms from community advocates.
Wake County’s campus police rules have been under scrutiny since a 2014 federal complaint alleged inappropriate referrals to school resource officers (SROs) for black students and students with disabilities, although interest spiked again this year after a videotaped altercation between a SRO and a teenage girl at Rolesville High went viral in January.
Now, multiple advocates are slamming district officials and Wake school board members for what they call a dearth of substantial reforms and public transparency in the process, pointing out the document sidesteps additional guidelines for SRO referrals or documentation of the use of force on students.
Policy Watch reached out to Wake school officials, including Monika Johnson-Hostler, chair of the county Board of Education, for comment, although no district leaders had agreed to an interview by press time Tuesday.
WCPSS spokeswoman Lisa Luten emphasized this week that the MOU is still in draft form, adding that board members had been in contact with community groups regarding the document.
But to critics, if the draft agreement is approved as it’s currently written, Wake schools are falling short on their promises of a closer look at SRO policy after the violent altercation at Rolesville High in January.
“Wake County has the potential to be a model for what good school justice partnerships could look like,” says Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project in the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Right now, it is not there at all.”
“We’ve had numerous clients who’ve had school resource officers use force against them,” says Jen Story, an attorney with Legal Aid of N.C.’s Advocates for Children’s Services who led the 2014 federal complaint against WCPSS.
“I’m talking anything from being tackled to the ground, to having a Taser used against them, to having pepper spray used against them or even using handcuffs in situations you wouldn’t typically use handcuffs. A Taser used on a young child can be incredibly scarring.”
In one case, Story said she worked with a teen who was handcuffed for cutting in line at the cafeteria. Story calls the debate over SRO reforms, in Wake County and statewide, a “civil rights issue.”
“When you look at the data, it’s alarmingly clear which students are being targeted,” she said.
Multiple Wake law enforcement leaders did not respond to Policy Watch requests for comment on this report, but top officials such as Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison have suggested all SROs are being blamed for a few, isolated incidents.
Local law enforcement leaders have also countered that, too often, they are called upon to handle disciplinary cases best left to school personnel.
Regardless, the debate over school resource officers in North Carolina and nationwide appears to be at a crossroads.
With emerging national research suggesting school districts are increasingly relying on SROs rather than campus-based discipline, advocates say students, particularly African American teens, are leaving middle and high schools with criminal records over campus offenses that would have once spurred a suspension or detention.
Nicholson emphasizes that, with the N.C. General Assembly currently mulling myriad K-12 justice reforms—including long-sought “Raise the Age” proposals and school justice partnerships aimed at reducing K-12 court referrals—Wake County’s approach has the potential to shape how many North Carolina school districts set campus police policy.
Wake County’s vote comes amidst longstanding criticism of racial disparities in North Carolina school discipline practices, and particularly in its largest public school system. Data obtained by Policy Watch in March showed black students accounted for almost 70 percent of law enforcement referrals made in WCPSS over the last two years, despite making up less than a quarter of total student enrollment.
And new analysis by Legal Aid of N.C. details more troubling disparities, pointing out black students in 2015-2016 were far more likely than their white peers to be referred to adult criminal court rather than more “therapeutic” diversion programs.
That’s one reason advocates have been demanding that school leaders offer more specific guidelines on referrals to SROs. Yet, while the policy directs school administrators to manage disciplinary matters not related to violations of the law, the draft MOU retains broad language authorizing SRO involvement in “criminal matters.”
Story says that definition leaves “gaping holes,” including “extremely subjective” charges that she says may only exacerbate the troubling trends in the district.
“That would seem on the surface, police officers should be involved in addressing criminal matters,” said Story. “But when you think more critically about that, disorderly conduct is a criminal matter. Trespassing is a criminal matter. It gets into what are the types of things we want to be using our officers for. What sorts of thing should really be left to school administrators?”
Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes, who helped organize a February panel on school justice reforms after the January incident in Rolesville, called it her “biggest concern” that school administrators are handing off routine disciplinary matters to campus police.
“There needs to be clear policies about when school resource officers should be called and involved and it should be more clearly defined as to how they interact with students,” said Holmes.
Holmes added that she wants the county to refocus its investments on campus counselors, social workers and nurses rather than police officers.
“I do believe school resource officers play a key and important role in school safety,” said Holmes. “However, I think that their roles have been expanded beyond what was initially intended.”
Critics also say schools should be required to document any use of force by campus police. While the district’s agreement bars school police from “excessive, arbitrary or malicious” use of force, it skips reporting on violent encounters with students.
State law requires that such disclosures be made by school administrators and personnel, although SROs are considered employees of the local law enforcement agency and not the school system.
Multiple advocates interviewed by Policy Watch say data on SRO use of force are necessary to gauge whether school police are using force appropriately or inappropriately.
“If it’s not happening, then what’s the harm of documenting it?” said Nicholson. “We put so many accountability requirements on schools in the academic setting to make sure whatever curriculum we’re using is evidence based and students are making progress.
“Yet when we invite police officers into the schools, we don’t have any of those accountability measures to make sure that they are actually making students safer.”
Holmes said increasing reporting requirements could also be a tool for campus police.
“Increased transparency would lead to more accountability. But if we’re not keeping track of those interactions, it’s hard to determine what’s working and what’s not,” said Holmes. “It also helps our educators and school resource officers from being accused of something that they may or may not have done.”
Not all of the revised MOU is bad news according to critics of the school system’s disciplinary practices. Some cheered an edit that requires SROs’ quarterly reports on student referrals, which already document the race, gender and school assignment of students, also detail “offense charged.”
It’s a key revision that should allow districts to analyze whether African American students are being treated differently for the same offenses.
Much of the remaining document is unchanged, although one portion nixes principals’ discretion to report concerns about SRO conduct directly to the officer’s law enforcement supervisor, assigning that responsibility instead to the district’s senior director of security.
Meanwhile, critics this week lambasted the speed of the process, pointing out the draft document has yet to be released to the general public but is tentatively set for a school board vote on June 20.
One key reason for the urgency: The district’s current policy is set to expire at the end of June, although multiple stakeholders who spoke to Policy Watch about the memorandum say they’ve played little part in developing the document.
“You would think that, given that the MOU has not touched the fact that black students are more likely than white students to be referred to court for school based offenses, they would want to look at revising the agreement to address that,” said Nicholson.
“That’s not being done at all. The lack of a transparent process is going to result to continuing harm to black students in Wake County.”
Story says all parties—students, parents, teachers, administrators and law enforcement—need more specificity and transparency from the school district.
“Every law enforcement officer isn’t criminalizing minor student behavior,” she said. “But we also know that some are. The bright lines would stop our clients from being treated in this way.”
Agreed, says Nicholson.
“If we’re going to have police officers that have Tasers, that have weapons and are authorized to use force in some circumstances in our schools, let’s make sure they’re only using it when it is truly appropriate and it is truly necessary to make sure the school environment is safe for all students.”