Community conversation addresses the School-to-prison pipeline and role of SROs in Wake County Schools

— Susan London • susan.london@rolesvillebuzz.com • March 2017

Approximately 150 people filled Rolesville Town Hall on February 23 to participate in a forum organized by Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes.

School Safety Forum

PHOTOS BY SUSAN LONDON
From left: Judge Craig Croom, Mayor Frank Eagles and Sheriff Donnie Harrison participate in the panel to discuss the school-to-prison pipeline.

Although the Thursday night meeting was prompted by the January 3 viral video incident at Rolesville High School in which a school resource officer was shown throwing a student to the ground while responding to a fight, Holmes said, “the focus of the event was a community conversation on solutions to address the school-to-prison pipeline and better understand what the community believes should be the role of school resource officers.”

The video, which generated backlash on social media, has renewed focus on the discipline problems administrators face in Wake County Schools and has the public seeking answers on root causes of the problem and potential solutions.

Former N.C. Teacher of the Year James Ford and education advocate Toshiba Rice moderated a five-member panel consisting of Holmes, Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, District Court Judge Craig Croom and WCPSS school board member Monika Johnson-Hostler.

Panel members shared thoughts on the role of SROs, ways to address the disproportionate number of African-American students disciplined by the school system, solutions to ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and the movement to raise the age of juvenile distinction from 16 to 18.

All of the panelists agreed an SRO’s main role at a school should be that of protector rather than disciplinarian. But with budgetary restrictions limiting the number of counselors on school campuses and the fact that SROs are law enforcement professionals, the boundaries of the role is a gray area.

Harrison pointed out SROs are there to ensure a safe environment, build good relationships with students and enjoy working within schools. However, Harrison said, they are police officers, obligated to respond to violations of the law whether they take place on school campuses or on public streets. He added there were 25 student arrests between 2015 and 2016 in Wake County Schools.

School Safety Forum

Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes talks with a participant at the Community Conversation on February 23 at Rolesville Town Hall.

North Carolina’s status as one of only two states in which 16- and 17-year-olds are treated as adults means an arrest in school can result in a student being tried in the adult criminal justice system. And students who once might have been sent to the principal’s office for minor infractions now face the potential of being placed in handcuffs, Holmes said.

Eagles would like to see SROs removed from schools, believing authority to deal with discipline issues needs to be returned to teachers and principals. Most panelists, though, felt removing SROs wasn’t feasible. “We’re in a society of Columbine and school shootings,” said Holmes, who said she wouldn’t want to remove SROs who are there to protect.

Panelists also were asked about disproportionate discipline numbers among minority students. 2015-16 data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction indicates black students in North Carolina are 4.2 times more likely to be suspended from school. Croom and Johnson-Hostler pointed to the implicit bias that exists, and Croom said “continued training is very important to make sure we’re addressing some of those implicit biases.”

Harrison suggested students’ home life contributed to actionable behavior. To that end, panelists agreed an increase in counselors was essential toward helping students in crisis.

Johnson-Hostler, who has worked with fellow school board member Christine Kushner to open food pantries in five high-poverty schools, cited hunger, homelessness and drug addiction as some of the problems at-risk students face. Johnson-Hostler said the ratio of students to counselors in Wake County Schools is currently 1:658 – one counselor for every 658 students – a number Holmes called embarrassing.

Panelists discussed the positive effect school counseling has on at-risk students, the need to address the whole child and the importance of determining the cause of discipline issues. When school staff identify which challenges a student is facing, there is potential to implement counseling and social programs. But Holmes noted the challenges that still exist. For example,  homeless students may be hesitant to identify themselves as such, thereby making it difficult to get them help.

Eagles suggested reintroducing trade programs and ROTC, saying some kids are never going to college, but “if we can find out what a kid loves, that kid is going to stay in school.” Judge Croom agreed students who find their niche do better.

In addition to addressing the causes of discipline issues, panelists agreed the Raise the Age movement would be an important step toward interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. Croom said there are great juvenile court counselors in Wake County who will do everything to keep kids out of the adult system.

Croom and Harrison were both quick to stress it cannot be an unfunded mandate. Raising the age requires more resources overall to handle the influx of kids back into juvenile court.

When the floor opened for comments at the end of the meeting, almost immediately a parent referenced the viral video, asking what interim steps were being put in place to ensure similar situations would be handled differently. Another parent cited SROs dealing with kids in an adult manner.

Rolesville Police Chief Bobby Langston couldn’t comment on the ongoing investigation but said it was an unfortunate situation they were working diligently to resolve. The officer involved recently resigned his position.

Audience members discussed the digital divide, suggestions for increasing volunteerism in schools, resources for homeless students, use of force in schools and SRO training.

Holmes said she hopes to hold similar Community Conversations in the future to address similar issues facing the community.