RALEIGH — A Southeast Raleigh High School senior who spent three weeks in jail because the foster care system could not find a place for her was freed Thursday.
Selina Garcia, 17, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and communicating threats that stemmed from incidents at school, including a fight on a school bus.
Wake County officials said at a Thursday morning hearing that they had found a group home for Garcia near High Point and were looking into other options. By the time she was released later in the day, officials had found a placement for her in Raleigh.
“She’s going to be able to stay in Raleigh, which is so important,” said Jen Story, an attorney for Garcia from Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services.
Garcia has a support network of friends in the area and is working with the school system to stay on track and graduate from high school this year, Story said.
Garcia was arrested March 7 by a school police officer after the fight on the bus, during which police said she punched another student in the head. The student did not have serious injuries.
Garcia already had been suspended by a school administrator for her behavior when she was arrested.
She told the judge Thursday that she wants to find ways to manage her anger and to help others in similar situations.
“I know that I need to set a better example, especially if I’m preaching and fighting for things to be right,” she said.
Youth advocates who have rallied around Garcia say the case also illustrates the risks of having police officers in the schools. Those officers, known as school resource officers, too often are involved in criminalizing typical student behavior, they say.
Advocates for leniency
Markyona Patrick, 16, a member of NC HEAT, a group that works to change school disciplinary policy, said students should not be pushed out of school for disciplinary problems by harsh suspensions or arrests.
Instead, Patrick said, students need more resources to work through problems they are having.
“If we had more counselors to talk to, we would probably be doing a lot better,” she said. Patrick and other members of NC HEAT sat at Thursday’s hearing dressed in green in a show of support for Garcia, who is part of the group.
Garcia was charged as an adult in the case and held with adult women at the Wake County Detention Center on Hammond Road. North Carolina and New York are the only states that automatically prosecute all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with a crime.
Al Singer, an assistant county attorney, said that policy is part of the problem in cases like Garcia’s.
“Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds don’t belong in jail,” he said.
Held up by the rules
Garcia could have left jail after her first hearing just days after her arrest, except that the court system required she be released into the custody of a parent or guardian.
But because Garcia is part of the Wake County foster care system, she had to wait for the county to find her somewhere to live.
Sarah Williamson-Baker, a spokeswoman for county government, said earlier this week that officials work as quickly as possible to find services when a child is arrested, in sometimes frustrating circumstances.
Garcia turns 18 in June, the age when teenagers begin to transition out of foster care. The county does provide some services to help teenagers as they leave the system, including support if they are enrolled in higher education.
Garcia’s aunt, Melissa Garcia, spoke to reporters after the hearing and said she wished she had been notified by the county earlier so she could have helped. She learned of her niece’s situation just before the hearing from media reports.
“Why am I just now finding out about this?” she said.
Williamson-Baker said that when a child is in need of care, officials do look to family to see if there is a possible placement. She could not discuss the specifics of the case because of confidentiality rules.