Jan 22 10:00 AM

Black students and the school-to-prison pipeline

Last May, Jahbriel Morris and seven other students were arrested for events relating to a water balloon fight at Enloe High School in Raleigh, N.C.
America Tonight

Explore the rest of America Tonight’s “Getting Schooled” education series every night this week. You can also find our breakdown of the school-to-prison pipeline by the numbers here

Enloe High School is known for its racial and socioeconomic diversity. As a magnet program, it attracts kids from all over Wake County, N.C. But the school also has enough of a crime problem that a Raleigh police officer is permanently assigned to campus.

Last May 16, a massive water balloon fight broke out at Enloe. After a 911 call about the senior-day prank, the Raleigh Police Department dispatched 24 officers to restore order. The heightened security stemmed, in part, from the rumors that the balloons would be filled with urine and bleach. (Police and school officials would later say that there was no evidence of the balloons being filled with any substance other than water.)

In the end, eight Enloe students, all 16 to 17 years old, along with a parent, were arrested following events related to the water balloon fight.

In North Carolina, being arrested as a teenager has enormous consequences. It’s one of two states in the country that consider 16- and 17-year-olds to be adults when they are charged with a criminal offense and then deny them the chance to appeal for return to the juvenile system. The law means that misdemeanor charges stick on your permanent record.

Following the Enloe incident, however, there has been pushback from child advocates over how the state handles teen discipline. This week, Legal Aid of North Carolina is filing a complaint with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, alleging “over-reliance on unregulated school policing practices, often in response to minor infractions of school rules.” The complaint charges that those policies routinely violate “students’ educational and constitutional rights, as well as protections for students with disabilities and for African-American students against unlawful discrimination.”

The issues in Wake County have also resonated nationally. Earlier this month, the federal Education and Justice departments issued new guidance on school discipline, designed to disrupt what’s increasingly called the school-to-prison pipeline, which critics say lands far too many black and Hispanic students in the courthouse — or jail.

The new guidance, which is voluntary, urges school officials to remember that they, not police officers, are responsible for routine student discipline. It also urges schools to improve faculty training to resolve conflicts without calling the cops.

But in Wake County, the guidance comes a little too late.

The water balloon fight

America Tonight spoke with Kevin Hines, Robert Brown and Jahbriel Morris about the events at Enloe High School last May.
America Tonight

On the day of the arrests, Jahbriel Morris was waiting at the bus with friends. When the water balloon fight began, Morris said he was running away from the ones being thrown in his direction. Soon, a police officer ran up behind him — a “really big guy,” Morris recalled.

“He grabs me,” Morris said. “I snatch away from him. And he turns me around and grabs me by my neck and slams me on my back.”

Morris, then a 15-year-old sophomore, was having a hard time processing exactly what was going on.

“Honestly, when it first happened, the first thing that went in my head was, ‘I can’t believe I’m about to get arrested. I gotta walk my sister home,’ because we ride the same bus,” said Morris, who was ultimately not arrested.

Kevin Hines was in Enloe’s carpool lane waiting to pick up his twin daughters when he saw Morris get slammed to the ground by a Raleigh police officer. “Very, very disturbing,” he said.

After witnessing what happened to Morris, Hines entered the school to alert the principal. But as he tried entering the principal’s office, Hines was met by the same officer who had body-slammed Morris moments earlier. The police officer, Hines said, radioed in to two more officers who swarmed the parent and slammed him against a wall.

“(The police officer) says, ‘Tase him, tase him,’” Hines said. “And at that point, I said, ‘For what?’ ‘Oh, for trespassing.’” Police did not use a Taser on Hines, but he was charged with trespassing.

Robert Brown, one of the seven students arrested, was charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

Walking out of the bathroom, Brown, then a 16-year-old sophomore, said he saw a water balloon being thrown. The water balloon, he said, was coming “from a completely different direction than from where I’m standing.” Then an administrator came from behind him and grabbed his arm and shoulder.

“He’s like, ‘I saw you throw the water balloon,’” Brown said. “And I’m like, ‘No, I didn’t.’ So they take me to a conference room and they tell me, ‘You’ll probably be arrested.’”

'We're not criminals'

Officials from Enloe High School, the superintendent’s office, the school board and the police department declined to speak to America Tonight on camera about the incident. The Wake County School District and the school board released identical statements to America Tonight.

“The Wake County Public School System is responsible for providing a safe and optimal learning environment for all students,” officials said in the statement. “To that end, we continually review all policies and practices that affect student learning and discipline.”

Jason Langberg found that black students in Wake County, N.C., are punished at a higher rate than white students.
America Tonight

Jason Langberg is the supervising attorney at Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. He said that Wake County has one of the largest school-to-prison pipelines in the country and that much of that is due to the county also having one of the highest long-term suspension rates in the state. His analysis of discipline data at Wake County schools found that more than 20,000 suspensions a year that last for up to 10 days.

“Just a few years ago in Wake County, over 1,000 kids a year were being suspended for the rest of the school year,” he said. “Over 1,000 kids a year told, ‘Get out. You’re on the streets. Come back next year.’”

Langberg said that Wake County's suspension record has come down in recent years. During the 2011–12 school year, the system gave out 14,223 short-term suspensions and 403 long-term suspensions, he said.

But the racial disparity in the suspensions is still evident. According to his analysis of the discipline data, black students at Wake County schools get suspended five times as often as white students. At Enloe, black students are 39 percent of the population, but receive 76 percent of the short-term suspensions and, shockingly, 92 percent of the long-term suspensions, he said. 

A weeklong military-style program at Sorter Elementary School in Benton Harbor, Mich. for students who have been expelled or suspended.
Don Campbell/AP

The school-to-prison pipeline: By the numbers

To what extent does this race gap in school punishments exist across the country? America Tonight broke down the numbers to see how the school-to-prison pipeline actually works, it's scope and what's fuelling the racial divide. We trace how suspensions of children can lead to more high school drop outs, and how police involvement in school discipline can end up producing more hardened criminals. 

Langberg's data discovered just the racial disparity in punishment among students in Wake County, N.C.
America Tonight

Langberg said there’s no evidence to support that the black students are acting up more or are acting more severely, but that they are being suspended more often and more harshly. For example, Langberg found that 40 percent of black students in Wake County schools caught with cellphones were suspended last year, while only 17 percent of white students were suspended for the same offense.

“We see differences in disability, race, class,” he said. “Students doing the exact same things are often treated differently.”

Eight months after the Enloe incident, the young men who spoke to America Tonight maintained that they weren’t even involved in the water balloon fight. For them, the day has had a life-altering impact.

“I just want people to know that we aren’t bad kids,” Brown said. “We’re not criminals, you know? We’re not thieves, murderers, anything like that. We (are) just students that go to school who got put in the wrong situation.”

The push for mediation

Wake County schools spend $6 million on policing every year, but crime remains a problem in its schools. In 2011, there were 29 acts of crime and violence at Enloe, including 10 assaults on school personnel and seven charges of weapons possession, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

The incidents happen regularly. For example, Tori Davis, a Broughton High School senior, brawled with another girl last year over a boy. Like the kids at Enloe High across town, Davis, 17 at the time, was charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. She also got kicked out of school for seven days, which, she said caused her grades to tank.

“I ended up at the end of the year failing English and geometry,” she said.

Last year, Tori Davis failed her English and geometry classes after being suspended for seven days.
America Tonight

Jon Powell, a professor at Campbell University Law School in Raleigh, said that what’s happening in Wake County at schools like Enloe and Broughton has both an immediate and long-term effect on students applying for college or trying to get a job.

“To me, the most severe consequence is having a criminal record,” Powell told America Tonight. “Even if they’re never convicted, a charge in the adult system stays on a person’s record.” He added: “Those records are private as I think they should be. And if we could raise the age in North Carolina, part of those protections would be put in place.”

Powell has lobbied the state’s General Assembly to increase the age, an effort that has been unsuccessful so far. But he’s had better luck as the director of the Juvenile Justice Project, which promoted an alternative: mediation instead of a criminal charge.

“We need to keep kids in school,” Powell said. “The answer to success is not in having kids leave school. We need to keep kids in school.”

Luckily for Davis, Broughton is one of a handful of Wake County schools that has signed on with Powell’s approach. More importantly, Powell brokered a deal that allowed her criminal charges to be dismissed. Now, Davis plans to graduate in May and attend Winston-Salem State with a clean record.

Davis knows her story could have had a similar outcome to what happened across town at Enloe.

“That could have been me,” she said.

More from America Tonight



Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter