RALEIGH — A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina found that between 2017 to 2023, statewide law enforcement and school staff filed school-based complaints of disorderly conduct against Black students at four times the rate of their white counterparts. The disparity in the rate of referrals for disorderly conduct in schools is even worse for many counties, where adults refer Black students at a rate of 23 to 42 times more than their white classmates.
The analysis was published during National Safe Schools Week, in the report titled “The Consequences of Cops in North Carolina Schools,” detailing the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of law enforcement referrals, and how the state continues to devote millions of dollars to placing armed law enforcement officers in schools, despite clear evidence of the negative impact of police on students and school environments.
In North Carolina, one of the most expansive and concerning criminal laws applicable to school-based conduct is the “disorderly conduct in schools” law, which makes it a crime to “disrupt, disturb, or interfere with teaching.” This vague law gives police officers unbridled discretion to define when, and under what circumstances, typical childhood conduct crosses the line into criminal behavior. Laws that don’t provide clear standards are particularly susceptible to biases, implicit or otherwise, which can shape a police officer or administrator’s perceptions of a child’s intent and culpability when disruptive behaviors occur, influencing the nature and severity of the responses to the conduct.
“It is well-established that Black students are not generally more likely to misbehave than other students, even after accounting for different socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, adults are far more likely to punish Black students, and to apply more severe punishment, than white students for similar conduct,” said Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “This results in Black students being over-criminalized, physically and mentally harmed, and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline every year.”
The report lays out clear recommendations on how state, school districts, and schools officials can ensure that students are supported in school rather than funneled out of it, including by prioritizing funding for mental health providers so that students receive evidence-based assessment and interventions when struggling with mental and behavioral needs. North Carolina was recently ranked 42nd out of 50 states for overall youth mental health, yet data shows that one school psychologist can serve up to 2,970 students, nearly six times the number of students than what is recommended.
“Prioritizing funding for police officers over funding for counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and community health workers is a policy choice that has had grave consequences for North Carolina’s children, especially Black youth and students with disabilities,” said Michele Delgado, staff attorney at the ACLU of NC. “Mental health concerns and suicide for Black youth have been increasing, in part because of police violence, overt racism, and the stressors caused by structural racism. It is time for North Carolina to invest in kids, schools, and communities, and prioritize policies that actually make schools safe and welcoming learning environments for all children.”
The Education Justice Alliance (EJA) and partner organizations have developed an intake complaint form to provide North Carolina students and families with the support needed to submit and monitor formal complaints against school police officers and school security guards who harm and violate students’ rights while attending school or participating in a school-related activities.
Other recommendations in the report include:
- Decriminalize normal childish behavior, including by repealing the “disorderly conduct in schools” law, which funnels students, particularly Black students and students with disabilities, into the criminal legal system.
- End the regular presence of law enforcement in schools, which harm students’ education in numerous ways and particularly burdens students of color and students with disabilities.
- Invest in and expand state and local partnerships to increase the availability and number of culturally affirming school-based mental health providers.
- Strengthen and further develop partnerships with community health workers to support mental health for youth.
- Require equity assessments of police impact, and ensure accurate reporting of data.
The full report, which includes the full list of recommendations, can be found online here: https://www.acluofnorthcarolina-bts.org/cops-in-schools