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A Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico found that school policing disproportionately affects students with disabilities, Black children and, in some states, Native American and Latino children.

Analysis Finds Schools Disproportionately Call Police On Students Of Color And Those With Disabilities — Including In Carolinas

Across the U.S., nearly 230,000 students were referred to law enforcement during the 2017-18 school year. A quarter of those cases ended in arrest. Black students and students with mental and physical disabilities were referred at nearly twice their share of the overall student population.

That’s what a Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found. In North Carolina and South Carolina, law enforcement was also brought in at higher rates when it came to Black and disabled students. Corey Mitchell, the lead reporter on that story, joins us with more details.

Marshall Terry: First, Corey, what does it mean to be referred to law enforcement, exactly?

Corey Mitchell
Corey Mitchell

Corey Mitchell: When we typically think of law enforcement referral, the first thing that comes to mind is an arrest. But not all law enforcement referrals are arrests. Students can be issued citations to appear before judges or juvenile court system officials, or it can just be a situation where an officer questions you.

Terry: What kinds of things are kids doing that result in a referral?

Mitchell: That is the big question. I know when we often think of school resource officers or police officers, we think of people responding to serious crimes or perhaps even school shootings. But when you have 230,000 law enforcement referrals in a year, obviously those aren't all shootings or major crimes. You have many of these officers who are responding to student code of conduct violations, like someone disrupting class — you know, a classroom management issue.

And that can have unintended consequences. A kid who's being a teenager and perhaps talking back to a teacher can end up with, in some states, a disorderly conduct charge. Most school resource officer associations will say, "Don't call in police for these minor matters. We're here to deal with major things." But often cases, they are dealing with these very mundane things that for all intents and purposes, teachers and administrators should be dealing with.

Terry: Why do schools say they need to call in law enforcement?

Mitchell: What I heard from some folks around the country is that it becomes a part of the culture. You're trying to lead a class. You have a student who's is being a little bit unruly or, you know, just being a kid. And it's sort of frustrating, right, as an educator? Think, "OK, well, I had this person who was just roaming the halls or roaming campus that I can call in to sort of settle them down — an authority figure."

But this person may not always be schooled in de-escalation techniques. One thing I heard from people over and over again is that police officers, no matter whether they're in the streets or on a school campus, in most cases are going to be officers. If they don't get compliance, they're going to use the power of arrest, many times, or confrontation to sort of settle issues. And that's not always the best tactic for children.

Terry: How do students fare when the police are called in?

Mitchell: Sometimes it's just sort of maybe minor trauma. We reported on some cases where children as young as 5 had interactions with police and were even handcuffed. But other times, these sorts of incidents can have very serious consequences. You often end up with children in the juvenile justice system with either charges or terms of probation that can carry over into adulthood that can affect their prospects for employment, for higher education.

So it's not just, "Oh, well, we're just going to call in this police officer just to settle things down." Sometimes things just spiral out of control.

Terry: Why is it that Black students and disabled students are referred at much higher rates?

Mitchell: Yeah, I mean, that is a question that there is no clear answer in the data beyond showing that there are these disparities. But I think with students with disabilities, it's a lot of those classroom management issues. A student may have an individualized education program that says that they do have some problems following directions or they do have some issues responding to authority. And instead of sort of working through steps to support those students, to help them understand what they need to do and help them develop coping mechanisms, schools call in police. They call in school security officers and say, "I can't deal with this kid. You deal with them."

And these folks don't have training to work with students with disabilities. The educators do. So they're sort of forcing this responsibility on these folks when they aren't trained to deal with these students. And when you talk about Black students, the clear-cut thing seems to be bias. In every state, Black students are referred to law enforcement at rates higher than their white peers, and that even cuts across states with relatively small Black student populations. So, yeah, I mean, the bias seems to be the case there.

Terry: What are the patterns that you're seeing specifically with referrals in North Carolina and in South Carolina?

Mitchell: Well, in both states, the overall law enforcement referral rates are below the national average. But the sort of disparities that we see with Black students and students with disabilities still exist across both states.

Terry: Are there any cases that happened in the Carolinas that stand out to you?

Mitchell: Yes, there was a case back in 2015 where a South Carolina sheriff's deputy flipped a student onto the floor over a desk and dragged her across the classroom simply because she refused to give up her cellphone. That was sort of one of those big national cases that drew a lot of attention and eventually led to changes in state law because she faced "disturbing schools" charges, which is sort of a catch-all just to describe things that rowdy teenagers are doing. Just a few years later, Gov. McMaster had to sign an amendment repealing that crime. Schools couldn't use it anymore. And we've seen several other states sort of go that same route.

Terry: What other options do schools have to deal with discipline?

Mitchell: We've talked to people in some places where they do have law enforcement officers on campus, but they need special approval to arrest students. They're more likely to rely on conflict resolution techniques. Say when there's a student assault or a student fight, they use diversion, and diversion programs simply mean, "We're going to find some way to address this without court involvement." And in pockets of the country, there are some districts that have found success with this.

Terry: Thank you for taking the time.

Mitchell: All right. Thank you for having me.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.