On Jan. 3, a school resource officer at Rolesville High School in Wake County slammed a student onto the concrete floor of the cafeteria. Jasmine Darwin – a 16-year-old, one-hundred-pound, African-American student at the school – reportedly was attempting to help break up a fight involving her sister. Video of the incident shows the officer grabbing Jasmine from behind, lifting her to his chest, slamming her to the ground, yanking her limp body up by her arm, and then dragging her away. She reportedly suffered a concussion and significant emotional trauma.
While the video is shocking, the Rolesville incident is not an isolated one. National data affirms that school police officers disproportionately target and arrest black students. Locally in Wake County, there have been numerous public testimonials from students who have been pepper-sprayed, Tased, and physically assaulted by school resource officers.
For the last decade, we have advocated for North Carolina students – disproportionately students of color – whose in-school misbehaviors have triggered arrest, uses of police force, and referrals to the juvenile or criminal systems. To be sure, the students with whom we’ve worked often have behaved poorly. They have gotten into fights; taken things from their classmates; and caused disruptions in the hallways. They have been immature and impulsive.
Unfortunately, the presence of police officers can mean that this type of developmentally normative misbehavior is harshly and inappropriately punished. The significant, decades-long growth in the number of school police officers has been linked to increased youth involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems – overwhelmingly for low-level misdemeanors. This should not be surprising; police, after all, are trained not in adolescent development but in investigating and solving crimes. As a result, pushing and shoving on the playground becomes battery; taking a classmate’s backpack becomes larceny; and shouting in a hallway becomes disorderly conduct.
Students sent to court face the long-term stigma that comes from being branded a delinquent or criminal – particularly damaging at a time of critical identity development. Those who are adjudicated or convicted may be removed from sports teams, prevented from getting financial aid, or hindered in pursuing future careers.
Rather than utilizing policing tactics to address student misbehavior, schools should impose consequences that are developmentally appropriate and targeted at helping children learn from their mistakes. Responding to student misbehavior in this manner is the way schools historically responded to misbehavior prior to the proliferation of police officers in schools.
North Carolina schools must aim to guard and maximize the potential of all students. The use of aggressive, school-based policing tactics like those employed at Rolesville High is antithetical to that aim. Our schools must be safe spaces where students are given constructive consequences, and permitted to grow out of immature behavior and learn from mistakes in a safe, supportive space. Where their futures are valued and not permanently shaped by impulsive decisions. Where there is no question that they matter. Because black students’ lives, too, do and must matter.
Barbara Fedders is an assistant professor of law at UNC School of Law, where she directs the Youth Justice Clinic. Jennifer Story is an attorney and education justice and youth advocate.