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School resource officers are sending fewer students to court. Some say it’s still too many.

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James Berish pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon afflicting serious injury and possession of a stolen fire arm. It is the first violent felony case in the the state to proceed through a restorative justice program pre-trial,

How many officers is too many on a school campus?

Some students say the answer is any at all. But local law enforcement officials say the number of school-based offenses has dropped dramatically over the last several years.

School resource officers are familiar to many Durham Public Schools students. The Youth Justice Project, part of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says the officers feeds the school-to-prison pipeline, which it defines as “policies and practices that push students out of school and into the juvenile and adult criminal systems.”

Project members recently invited students, law enforcement and Durham Public Schools officials to a town hall meeting.

“We believe that school resource officers disproportionately target students of color,” said Aissa Dearing, one of the organizers. “We believe there are better alternatives, such as restorative justice and peacekeeping officers who could break up fights and also aid in mental health counseling, without connecting to that school-to-prison pipeline.”

Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead acknowledged there can be tension between keeping students safe and making them feel welcome.

“Our role, responsibility and goal is to make sure schools are safe so that learning and teaching can take place,” he said. “That includes a number of responsibilities that we have to uphold as law enforcement and also how we interact with our students.”

The number of complaints the Sheriff’s Office has brought against juveniles in Durham has decreased dramatically, Capt. Kim Lane said. Juveniles are not charged with crimes in North Carolina. Instead, either law enforcement or private citizens file complaints, which are often resolved outside of court.

The Department of Public Safety reports there were 306 complaints filed against juveniles for school-based offenses in Durham County in 2012, 143 of which were approved for court.

In 2018, only 61 complaints were filed against juveniles for school-based offenses in Durham, and 40 of these went to court, according to the statistics.

Discipline disparities

Amazende Adi, Jennah Formey and Micah Sorensen shared their experiences and said students of color are punished differently than their white peers.

“I don’t want to be silent because someone else is afraid of me speaking out,” Adi said.

Formey described being sent to the principal’s office in elementary school for playing too roughly with a classmate, even though she and the classmate weren’t even touching.

“That’s when my mom taught me about racism,” she said.

Sorensen, whose mother’s Facebook post about his time in in-school suspension at Durham School of the Arts went viral, said he felt he and his friends had been singled out for punishment unfairly sometimes. Sorensen said a lot of his friends accepted the role they felt they were given.

“The way they were trying to portray them was what they started to believe,” Sorensen said.

Birkhead said he hopes to “put the resource back in school resource officer.”

“It’s going to take each member of DPS and the community to figure out what this looks like,” Birkhead said. “It’s not going to be easy. We will be breaking some norms and changing some paradigms, but it goes back to bringing all of us together to solve this school safety question.”

Lane didn’t have officers in her school growing up, but she thinks today’s students face a different world.

“We didn’t have the mental health crisis,” Lane said. “We didn’t have drugs. We had gangs, but we weren’t scared of them bringing a gun on campus.”

“If an SRO is not in a school, does it mean the criminal behavior won’t be happening? The answer is no,” Lane said. Pulling SROs from schools will not stop what’s happening. It will just make us close our eyes to it.”

The numbers

According to the Racial Equity Report Card, a fact sheet produced by the Youth Justice Project, Durham is actually far below the state average for juvenile complaints from schools.

Statewide, 42% of complaints against juveniles, or minors below 16, originated in schools for fiscal 2017-18. In Durham, only 15.6% of all juvenile complaints for the same period came from schools, one of the lowest rates in the state. This data was corroborated by the Department of Public Safety.

But, while black students make up less than 45% of the DPS student population, 90% of school-based complaints in 2018 were brought against black students.

Reached by email after the event, AnnMarie Breen, spokeswoman tor the Sheriff’s Office, said the department is working on how it handles school-based offenses.

“Clearly this is large drop which highlights how much work has been done by school resource officers to divert students to programs that keep them out of the court system,” Breen said.

At the town hall, Lane said there were over 500 instances in 2018 where behavior that could have led to complaints was either referred to school administrators or some alternative program; 441 of these incidents were referred directly to school discipline.

Lane credited services like teen court and a wider availability of mental health services with providing more options on juvenile behavior.

Still, Lane said, more can be done.

“I can’t say we’ve got it right,” Lane said, adding that the department is investing in equity trainings.

Reached by email after the event, Dearing said she appreciated the downward trend in complaints, but wants to see schools add counselors and social workers.

“I applaud the progress that the sheriff’s department has made,” Dearing said. “However, I am concerned about any criminalization of teenage behavior. There are many programs in Durham that prevent criminal charges for youth to go on file, which is great, but I believe that schools that have appropriate disciplinary techniques (that include restorative practice centers) are more equipped to handle any student issues than any intervention from law enforcement.”

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