Last May a water balloon fight erupted at Enloe High School during a senior prank, and police were dispatched. After investigation, eight Enloe students, ranging from 16 to 17, were arrested because of their involvement. Several of the eight have claimed that they had taken no part in the water balloon fight and that they were racially discriminated against, and seven were noted to have disabilities.
North Carolina is one of only two states in the country that regard 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, and being arrested at this age stays on their permanent record. When they are charged with criminal offenses they also cannot appeal to return to the juvenile system, leaving them with adult consequences.
Child advocates have been protesting how the state administers discipline to teens since the Enloe incident. In January, the Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) filed a complaint to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division against the state’s largest school system that said Wake County policies “unnecessarily and unlawfully punish and criminalize minor misbehaviors” and violate “students’ educational and constitutional rights, as well as protections for students with disabilities and for African-American students against unlawful discrimination.”
LANC charged that there is “over-reliance on unregulated school policing practices, often in response to minor infractions of school rules.” Nine law-enforcement agencies have assigned permanent school resource officers to police various Wake County schools. The school system representation has declined comment, only saying that “leadership of the Wake County Public School System is reviewing the Department of Justice complaint at this time.”
The Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates For Children’s Services has also filed a complaint, saying that “an educational environment that treats water-balloon-throwing as seriously as a crime does not teach discipline or self-discipline; rather, it engenders distrust and hopelessness.”
The argument of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is also getting national attention, critics saying that harsh judgments land African-American and Hispanic students disproportionately into the courthouse. Several civil rights groups have come together and filed their own complaint, saying that “the alleged ‘crimes’ for which WCPSS students are routinely being pushed into the juvenile and criminal system are exceedingly minor and include offenses such as throwing water balloons, stealing paper from a recycling bin and play-fighting with a friend.”
42 percent of all delinquency complaints made in Wake County happened at schools in the 2012-13 school year. 90 percent of the 763 charges were based on unproven misdemeanor offenses from 2011-12. 74.4 percent of the delinquency complaints that took place at schools were directed at African-Americans though they only make up 25 percent of Wake County’s school population.