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Many North Carolina Schools Don't Track Interactions With Police

If you want to get a better sense of how police operate in schools in North Carolina, you’re going to have a hard time getting that information. Schools are supposed to track the number of students they refer to police. But many districts aren’t doing that.

In North Carolina, 45% of all cases that make it to the juvenile justice system start in schools. But you wouldn’t get that by looking at data that districts are required by the federal government to track.

“The data that gets reported to the federal government around school-based policing has historically been really unreliable in North Carolina,” said Peggy Nicholson, the supervising attorney for Duke’s Children’s Law Clinic.

A third of North Carolina school districts report referring no students to police or student resource officers. But she knows that’s not right.

“I’ve worked in school districts where I’ve represented students who have been referred to court for school-based behaviors, but the district reports zero," Nicholson said. "So I’ve seen kind of firsthand that that is not making its way into the data” .

Referrals are interactions that may end in arrests but often do not. School districts report them to the U.S. Department of Education.

Many other districts report very low numbers. Gaston County Schools reported only referring four students to law enforcement in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent federal data available. But in Gaston County that year 188 complaints ended up in the court system that started in schools, according to the state’s Juvenile Justice Division.

Why does this matter? Because if you want to get a better idea of how often police are called to deal with students, that’s the data that will help tell you.

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed the federal data and found a large number of student referrals to law enforcement with a quarter ending in arrests.

“When you have 230,000 law enforcement referrals in a year, obviously those aren't all shootings or major crimes,” said Corey Mitchell, the lead reporter on that story. “You have many of these officers who are responding to student code of conduct violations, like someone disrupting class. And that can have unintended consequences.”

The center’s analysis found Black students and students with disabilities were referred to law enforcement at higher rates. The data showed the same in North Carolina and South Carolina. The center’s analysis also showed the two states' rates of referrals to law enforcement were much lower than the national average. But then that calculation was based on incomplete information.

In South Carolina in the 2017-18 school year, almost a third of districts reported zero students referred to law enforcement. In comparison, Clover Schools in York County looks high with 73 referrals. The district’s Chief Operations Officer Mark Hopkins has some questions about that number.

“I’m not sure what the source is," Hopkins said. "I know we do a CDC report. I have never been aware of a law enforcement involvement clause.”

Both North Carolina and South Carolina public schools report certain student offenses to the state, including possession of drugs and firearms. Hopkins said Clover’s four school resource officers are there to deal with those types of situations.

“They’re not intended to be an extra administrator to handle the day-to-day discipline," Hopkins said. "They’re a presence and there to handle higher-level incidents.”

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction does tell districts they need to report student referrals to law enforcement, but like Clover in South Carolina, many districts WFAE contacted didn’t know what to make of those federal numbers.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools reported 205 referrals to law enforcement in the 2017-18 school year. However, the number of complaints that ended up in the juvenile justice system was almost triple that at 592.

That’s a number that has been under scrutiny in Mecklenburg County. Judge Rickye McKoy-Mitchell remembers seeing a lot of cases that made her worried about how schools dealt with students.

“We were seeing things that would’ve been handled in school, but yet they were becoming criminalized by bringing them to the courts,” McKoy-Mitchell said.

Like a student stealing from a vending machine or a child coming back to school while suspended and charged with trespassing.

“Those are the kinds of things we were actually seeing in court and even that very brief touch with our criminal justice system, usually sends our young people on a spiral downward,” McKoy-Mitchell said.

She, along with Judge Elizabeth Trosch, gathered officials from CMS, the district attorney’s office, Charlotte Mecklenburg police and the town police departments to agree on what low-level acts are best handled outside of the court system. They signed an agreement in 2016.

The previous school year nearly 1,100 complaints that started at schools made it to the court system. Five years later, that was down to 323, comprising only 16% of juvenile cases in the county. Many other counties are in the process of setting up similar partnerships with the same goal in mind.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.