She hasn’t been sworn into office yet, but Durham County’s next district attorney is already talking about bold changes that she hopes will disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
Satana Deberry, who was elected this month on promises of progressive criminal justice reform, has said she does not want her office to prosecute misdemeanors or low-level felonies that originate in schools. That means students who get into a fight or are caught with a small amount of marijuana would avoid the formal court system.
“Just from a perspective of a prosecutor, I think moving forward we would like to move to not accepting any referrals from the schools,” Deberry said at a recent political forum. “We think there are better ways to deal with those issues than giving kids a criminal record.”
Although many students might not face criminal charges under Deberry, there would still be repercussions. The cases would likely be sent to programs such as Teen Court.
Advocacy groups in recent years have challenged the school-to-prison pipeline, in which they say poor and minority children are disproportionately charged with crimes. The problem is compounded, they say, by school systems’ zero tolerance policies and teachers and administrators relying on law enforcement to discipline students.
But critics say a softer approach to crime in schools can create an atmosphere in which offenders are considered victims. They also say such an approach does not take into account the day-to-day issues schools face.
The Durham public school system, which enrolls more than 32,000 students, has one of the highest crime rates among North Carolina school districts.
Across the state, high schools saw more than 12 reported crimes per 1,000 students during the 2016-17 school year, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Durham high schools saw double that amount — nearly 25 crimes per 1,000 students.
From 2012 to 2017, Durham schools had 1,149 school-based criminal complaints against children 15 and younger, according to the Department of Public Safety. About 80 percent of the offenses were misdemeanors, and dozens were low-level felonies.
Among the charges, 237 were simple assault or simple affray, both misdemeanors often associated with a fight, and 122 were misdemeanor larceny. Sixty-six were assault on a government official, and 63 were possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana.
Deberry’s school plan is part of her campaign promise that prioritizes prosecuting violent crime and looks at different approaches for less-serious offenses.
The Durham County Sheriff’s Office provides 18 school resource officers in 13 middle and high schools. Durham police provide resource officers in four schools, but the department is working to pull their officers from the program.
Sheriff-elect Clarence Birkhead, who was also voted into office on a platform of progressive reform, said he has already spoken with Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga about the role of school resource officers.
“At this moment, I am not in favor of pulling them out, but I am certainly in favor of overhauling the program because I think it is used inappropriately,” Birkhead said of the officers.
For example, he said, school officials often unnecessarily call SROs when there is a disciplinary issue. He said decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis on whether an officer should get involved.
“If there is a criminal matter, of course,” Birkhead said. “But bad behavior — we need to talk about that. ... Any time a law enforcement officer shows up, the tendency for it to go criminal is pretty good.”
In 2017, school resource officers from the sheriff’s office responded to about 3,500 calls, which ranged from a student feeling lightheaded to serious incidents.
The officers investigated 695 criminal acts, according to the sheriff’s office. About 543 cases were referred back to school administrators to handle.
School resource officers issued 36 citations that year, according to the sheriff’s office.
Fifty-two criminal charges were addressed in Teen Court, where first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors are tried by their peers. Thirty were sent to the county’s Misdemeanor Diversion Program, which allows first-time offenders under 21 to avoid a formal court hearing. More than 70 charges were referred to other programs.
Twenty-four of the offenses resulted in an arrest of youth ages 16 and older, and 32 resulted in juvenile petitions, a criminal charge for youth 15 and younger.
Students’ safety is the first priority, Birkhead said, followed by a program that encourages positive relationships between officers and students.
Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham school board, said in an interview that school resource officers are “important for multiple reasons.” They help build relationships between students and law enforcement, and they help teachers and administrators gain control in dangerous situations.
“I look forward to working with Mr. Birkhead and Ms. Deberry to hear what they have in mind, but also to reinforce the importance of the SROs in our schools as it relates to safety,” he said.
‘We are making progress’
Nisha Williams, chairwoman of the Durham County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, said she understands some people’s concerns about officers in schools, but Durham County has made strides to keep school-based offenses out of the formal court system.
SROs have been encouraged in recent years to defer more cases to Teen Court and other programs instead of moving forward with the criminal process, Williams said.
“Over my years working with them, I have seen firsthand that they’re trying to do this work, but that’s not to say it is perfect,” Williams said.
Information shared at a Durham County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council community conversation in June indicates that during the 2016-17 fiscal year there were 403 total criminal complaints against juveniles. About 28 percent were school-based.
Those numbers were down significantly from 2013, when school-based offenses accounted for 39 percent of the complaints.
There are likely some school resource officers “that may tend to overcharge rather than use deferrals,” Williams said. “Or there might be certain school administrations that don’t necessarily encourage the SROs to defer certain things.”
A new approach to handling criminal complaints in schools could make Durham County a model for the rest of the state, she said.
“For us to be able to cut that access, we are making progress,” Williams said.