Wake County’s black students are much more likely to be arrested at school and suspended than other students, prompting questions Tuesday from school leaders about what can be done to reduce the racial disparities.
For the first time, school leaders received data about the number of students who are arrested on campus and how many are referred to the court system. Based on the 2014-15 school year, black students accounted for 69 percent of the court referrals and were 1.7 times more likely to be arrested for fighting and theft than other groups.
The arrest data come at the same time new student discipline data shows that African-American students are still suspended at higher rates than other groups. Black students accounted for 63 percent of Wake’s suspensions during the 2014-15 school year while making up 24 percent of the enrollment.
“I want to commend you all for getting us some numbers,” said school board Chairman Tom Benton. “All last year we kept hearing these anecdotal reports and we kept saying, ‘What are our real numbers?’At least we’re heading down the road of factual data.”
The new reports come as Wake is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over its suspension numbers. Civil-rights activists have also charged that local law enforcement agencies disproportionately arrest minority students.
“It’s really important information to have,” said Jen Story, an attorney for Advocates For Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. “It’s discouraging that we haven’t made progress on issues of equity.”
Concerns about Wake’s arrest and suspension data mirror those being raised nationally. In 2014, the Obama Administration issued new federal guidelines saying that routine student infractions should be resolved at schools and not lead to arrests.
Of the 850 court referrals, 48 percent were made to the adult system and 33 percent were made to juvenile courts. That’s compared to 18 percent referred to Teen Court and less than 1 percent to mediation.
“The school resource officer should be providing resources and not funneling them into the court system, which is unfortunately what the data is indicating,” Story said.
Wake school officials say their ability to use mediation is limited by the capacity of the court system.
“We’d certainly like to see more mediation,” said Russ Smith, Wake’s senior director of security. “We’d like to see more Teen Court.”
The Raleigh Police Department had the most referrals of any agency at 391, with 73 percent being black students.
“The Raleigh Police Department has a policy of not tolerating bias in policing,” said Jim Sughrue, a police spokesman. “We would investigate any allegation of bias.”
School board member Keith Sutton suggested setting up a protocol for when schools call in law enforcement.
“Once you get law enforcement involved, it’s very hard to get them out,” Sutton said. “It should be the last resort.”
Marvin Connelly, the school system’s Chief of Staff and strategic planning, said some law enforcement issues have to be referred to police. But he said school staff are looking into what matters can be handled by principals instead.
The news was more positive about Wake’s ongoing efforts to reduce student suspensions.
Even though suspensions increased this past school year, they’re down sharply from five years ago. Since the 2010-11 school year, total suspensions and short-term suspensions of 10 days or less have both dropped 34 percent and long-term suspensions have declined 44 percent. Schools have been encouraged to use out-of-school suspensions sparingly and to instead find in-school alternatives.
Principals of middle schools that have been working with the Office of Equity Affairs said they’re seeing declines in both overall suspensions and suspensions for African-American students.