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Wake County Criticized for "Criminalization of Students"

January 24, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. – The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is considering what's being called one of the most comprehensive legal complaints ever about school policing.

The Wake County Public School System, the Sheriff's Department and eight police departments in the county are the subjects of the complaint.

A large group of child and citizen advocacy organizations alleges the school system has demonstrated a pattern of discrimination and unlawful criminalization of students.

Christine Bischoff, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center, is one of the attorneys representing the complainants.

"Instead of dealing with minor behavior problems, the schools are just saying, 'Well, it's easier to let either the school resource office deal with it or calling local law enforcement,'" she contends.

Bischoff says she hopes the DOJ takes action based on the complaint and demands that the Wake County School Board work with local law enforcement officials to establish protocols for when they are involved in disciplinary issues.

According to the Justice Center, students are subjected to physical restraints, pepper spray and Tasers; searched without reasonable suspicion and interrogated without Miranda warnings.

A representative with Wake County Public School System says the system has no comment on pending legal action.

Because North Carolina remains one of only two states that automatically prosecutes 16 and 17 year-olds as adults, many students are getting permanent charges on their record that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

"What happens is the student is arrested for these minor behavior issues,” Bischoff says, “and then they're put into the criminal justice system and even if the school district or the local law enforcement drop the charge later, the student still has that on their criminal record,"

During the 2011-12 school year, 90 percent of the school-based delinquency complaints were based on allegations of misdemeanor violations.

Currently, the school system employs 60 full-time law enforcement officers.

Reporting for this story by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest. Media in the Public Interest is funded in part by Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Stephanie Carson/Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC