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” that 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
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.’”