Foster care status strands Wake student in jail three weeks after school bus fight

sbarr@newsobserver.comMarch 25, 2014 

— A Southeast Raleigh High School senior has spent nearly three weeks in jail after police said she punched another girl on a school bus.

Selina Garcia, 17, could leave the Wake County Detention Center on Hammond Road where she is being held with adults at any time, with one catch: a parent or guardian needs to to be responsible for her when she goes.

But Garcia is part of the Wake County foster care system, and county officials have told Garcia’s attorney Jennifer Story that they have not yet found a place for her to live.

“Jail is essentially a temporary foster care placement,” said Story, who works with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services.

Story is Garcia’s education justice attorney; she also has a criminal attorney. Garcia has requested that her story be shared publicly.

Youth advocates who have rallied around Garcia say the case illustrates the risks that come with allowing school police officers, known as school resource officers, to be a part of the disciplinary process. Her case comes at a time when the Wake County school board is re-examining many of the system’s discipline policies and its relationship with law enforcement officers in the schools.

A spokeswoman for Wake County government said officials cannot disclose information about a child in Child Protective Custody. However, the county tries to minimize the time children in their legal custody spend in jail, county officials said.

If a child is arrested, the county assesses whether he or she can be returned to a prior placement, and, if not, attempts to secure a new placement.

“We are sometimes frustrated that we are not able to access appropriate services quickly, but we give the situation high priority and work as diligently as possible,” spokeswoman Sarah Williamson-Baker said in an email.

Garcia is being held on an unsecured bond, a status that typically would allow her to leave the jail. However, the status also came with the requirement that someone pick her up, Story said.

Garcia faces hearing Thursday

A judge could remove the custodial requirement when Garcia goes to court Thursday on three misdemeanor charges, including simple assault, and assault and battery. Police said Garcia punched a 15-year-old girl in the head multiple times on the bus. The girl did not have serious injuries.

Garcia has a prior arrest record. She was charged with communicating threats this year, second-degree trespass in 2013 and simple assault in 2012. Story, who did not represent Garcia for those cases, said she did not know the outcome.

Since she was arrested March 7, Garcia also has had social services hearings related to her case. County officials said they could not comment on whether they have presented Garcia with alternative options to jail.

Wake County schools officials would not comment other than to confirm that Garcia is a student at Southeast Raleigh.

Garcia was told though that she did not have the option to return to her prior foster care family, said Story, who was not a part of those hearings. County officials said that confidentiality rules in foster cases do not allow them to comment on the situation.

Group questions dual punishments

Garcia was arrested at school after she had been suspended for five days by school administrators for the fight on the bus that morning, according to NC HEAT, a youth advocacy group that works to reform school discipline policies.

Student members of the group spoke before the Wake County school board last week and questioned why the officer decided to arrest Garcia after she had been punished at school.

“Police tend to get involved with school issues that should be taken care of by school administrators,” said Ajamu Dillahunt, 16, a junior at Southeast Raleigh. “Cops should be used to enforce the law, not school rules.”

Dillahunt, who spoke before the school board, wants to see Garcia back at school as soon as possible, where he said she exudes positive energy.

In a letter written to NC HEAT, Garcia urged her fellow students to tell her story.

“Jail isn’t going to slow me down nor stop me,” she wrote. “They think it’s going to break me but I am still going on.”

Story said Garcia’s case shows it’s time to revisit the agreement between Wake schools and the Raleigh Police Department that sets out the rules for when officers who are stationed in schools should get involved in discipline issues.

The current agreement, which expires later this year, tasks officers with intervening to maintain a safe school environment, but Story said the agreement isn’t specific enough about what that means.

“What we’re really seeing is police officers being involved in typical adolescent behaviors,” she said.

Federal complaint

Other municipalities across the country have succeeded in drafting more specific agreements with significant community input. Wake should take the same approach, Story said.

“We don't want our students to be criminalized, so what are we going to do about it?” she said.

Both Legal Aid and NC HEAT are part of a federal legal complaint that charges school officers in Wake County schools routinely violate the constitutional rights of minority students.

Wake school board member Jim Martin said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of Garcia’s case because it involved a student matter, which is confidential.

But Martin, who has been one of the most vocal proponents of reforming the district’s discipline policy and reviewing the relationship with school resource officers, said what took place was a more serious offense than schools can handle alone.

“To characterize this as just being a school-level infraction would be a mischaracterization,” he said, declining to elaborate. Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Barr: 919-836-4952

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