This is the first story in a two-part series about Wake County students organizing against police brutality. Read part two here.
Yakob Lemma and classmate Victoria Smith were just seven months into their freshman year at Enloe High School, a high-performing magnet known for its racial and socioeconomic diversity in downtown Raleigh, when the Parkland Shooting happened. It was one of the deadliest mass school shootings, and elected officials scrambled to respond nationwide. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper formed a Special Committee on School Shootings, and the next year suggested that there should be an armed officer in every school in the state.
Smith and Lemma shared Honors English and civics classes. As two of only a few Black students, connecting was easy—and necessary. One day in civics, their teacher decided to add to the conversation around the Constitution by inviting the School Resource Officer (SRO) to share with the students about their rights as citizens.
"The officer told the class that 'the reason my arrest rates include mainly Black people, instead of white people, is because Black people use weed—and I can smell weed. But white people mainly use pills—and I can't smell pills,'" Lemma said.
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Lemma and Smith said this moment had a deep impact on all of the students who witnessed the officer's presentation in class. They now knew not only that their Black and brown classmates were being targeted, but that the cops justified their racial profiling at school with a baseless lie. Black and white high school students use marijuana at virtually the same rate, according to an extensive study from the University of Michigan, and several others.
At Enloe High School, for the 2019-2020 school year, 74 percent of students stopped by SROs were Black, while only 6 percent were white, according to a fact sheet compiled by Jen Story of the Education Justice Alliance (EJA), shared by Lemma.
"And here's what's crazy," Lemma, now a senior, said. "This was only the first half of the year. The class of 2020 didn't have a full year [of in-person school]. So think about how much worse it could have been if we would have had a whole entire year. That's why we're here. That's why we're fighting for this."
In 2020, protests to defund the police forced folks to rethink law enforcement's role in communities—a task still underway. In North Carolina, students are organizing to remove police from schools after several troubling incidents of police brutality against students made national news.
But for Lemma and Smith, it was the microaggressions, feelings of isolation, and covert segregation that made their school feel unsafe, especially knowing that racist SROs and their violent behavior would be excused.
"Making sure your minority students are comfortable with whatever you're about to do, you know, is not that hard," Lemma said.
He's a tall, slender teen with a halo of dark curls and a tight fade. He slouched in his office chair at the beginning of our interview, but was now leaning into his desk. Visibly and audibly disturbed by the injustice he described, his eyes fixed on the screen as the words raced out of his mouth, it's like he knows that every second of this fight for justice counts, and he refuses to waste a single one.
"Literally a couple of days ago, one of my teachers said the N-word like it was nothing, reading it out of the book."
Removing SROs is as much about shifting the culture that allows armed officers in the halls with children as it is about getting the cops off campus, and student activists are working to change both.
A student-led movement
Smith and Lemma both count themselves as two of "the lucky ones" when it comes to their upbringing and experience in school.
They are both excellent students who take part in Enloe's Medicine and Bioscience Academy, a specialized curriculum track for students who excel academically and are interested in a career in medicine.
Both teens come from strict, close-knit families, with parents who think the world of them and would never wish to see them in harm's way.
Little did any of them know that the murder of George Floyd would be the catalyst behind joining the bitter American tradition of student-led demonstrations against state-sanctioned violence upon Black and brown bodies.
See also: How the criminal justice system criminalizes learning disabilities in Texas public schools
"Our entire summer consisted of organizing and protests," Smith recalled. She was just one week away from her 18th birthday when we talked over Zoom. She has a mature and maternalistic soul—her reaction to seeing my young daughter in the background on our call was that of a proud auntie. But the dimples in her chin when she smiled reminded me that she was still very much a child; a child who has been forced to experience the hardships of coming of age under the watch of armed police patrolling the halls of her school and profiling her Black friends on a daily basis.
"[T]here are countless times I'd have to stay out till one or two the morning, sitting outside and waiting for my friends to be released from jail after protesting for a simple reason—for us to be heard as Black students and to be seen as equal."
The Wake County Black Students Coalition (WCBSC)—co-founded by Smith and Lemma along with fellow students Jasmin Benas, Regan Razon, Gracie Staser, and Sanga Bull—organized a demonstration this summer. Their goal was to reverse a recent decision by the Wake County Board of Education (WCBOE) to keep school resource officers at Enloe and other high schools in spite of growing pleas from students, their families, and local activists against police presence in schools since the SRO program officially began in 2009.
It was a balmy night on June 26 when hundreds of students, parents, and co-conspirators marched down Salisbury Street in downtown Raleigh to protest. They passed the site where the city's tallest Confederate Monument had been taken down just a few days before by Black Lives Matter protesters. They were equipped with masks, signs, bullhorns, and a desperate passion to feel safe in school.
"I can't even remember the amount of times I was tear-gassed. The police would be on their carts and ramming them through the crowd of protesters. I would see my own friends being thrown to the ground [by the police] and manhandled and then being taken away," Smith said of her experience during both the BLM protests and those organized by WCBSC.
While the murder of George Floyd had pushed them out into the streets, it was their own pain that formed their rallying cries.
A video of the event from the Raleigh News & Observer captured their demands: "Say his name: Tamir Rice!" "Get out of your cars and into the streets!" "Black students matter!" "Abolish SROs!" "White silence is compliance! Silence is violence!"
History of Violence
Amid a growing movement to defund police forces nationwide, school security in North Carolina has become a significant expense for districts as the numbers and scope of officers, private security guards, and equipment have ballooned over the years. Wake County spent $3.1 million on the SRO program in 2013 alone.
Police have been in Wake County schools for a long time, but their numbers have increased dramatically over the last 20 years. An article from the WestEd Justice and Prevention Research Center suggests there has been little research into the effect SROs have had on crime in schools, but what scholarship does exist shows that there has been no effect at all over that time.
What SROs have had an impact on, however, is the increase of violent arrests and exclusionary discipline measures, like out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. They've also reinforced a discrepancy of how these punishments are used on Black students and white students engaging in the same behaviors.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the number of SROs increased 249 percent across the state from the 1996-1997 school year to 2008-2009. Over those 11 years, North Carolina schools went from employing 248 to 849 law enforcement officers. This steady increase of police presence, along with an increasing number of violent arrests of children in schools, caught the attention of journalists and civil rights experts.
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In 2008, a child at Middle Creek High School in nearby Cary was tazed so severely that one of their lungs collapsed. On another occasion in September of 2010, a Raleigh officer deployed pepper spray to disperse a fight. Sixteen students were affected by the caustic gas—four of the children were taken to the hospital.
In 2009, Russ Smith, Senior Director of Security for the Wake County Public School System, worked with the Sheriff's department and other municipal departments to create a memorandum of understanding between the district and the police. Though its purpose was to define the role for SROs in all middle and high schools, the agreement ultimately led to more confusion and harm to students and families.
According to a study by Advocates for Children's Services, the original document stated that SROs "have no obligation to obey directives issued by school principals," and that they "are not required to have any experience working with children and youth." (At the time of publication, the school board has yet to provide an official copy of this document.)
As far as guiding the behaviors of the officers, there were no limitations on "arrests and court referrals," nor on the "use of force." Police departments were given sole authority to select officers for the program and there was no guidance given for students, parents, or staff to issue conduct complaints.
The program fuels the fuel-to-prison pipeline, especially for Black students. Until December of 2019, North Carolina was the only state in the union to prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds as adults in court, no matter the severity of their crime.
In 2010, the NAACP, along with several other groups, filed a federal complaint against Wake County schools for suspensions that disproportionately affected Black students and violated their civil rights. Russ Smith was asked to thoroughly study the impact of the SRO program on students. On August 2, he presented a survey sent to middle and high school principals and assistant principals. The survey consisted of only five "agree" or "disagree" questions. With little supporting evidence, he concluded that the SRO program was effective in driving down school crime and creating a safe learning environment.
The reality is that other evidence shows SROs do the opposite.
"SROs have to wait and call for backup before they can even engage [a potential shooter]. So what difference would it make?" Lemma said.
"It's just allowing our marginalized communities to continue to be oppressed, when we can instead instill peacekeepers or social workers, you know, counselors, people who can help with our students."
Parents turned activists
"I realized early on in my child's schooling that I had to be a strong advocate for her in order for her to not be overlooked" said Letha Muhammed, a parent of three children in Wake County schools.
Parents like Muhammed were stunned by the racial, ethnic, and ability discrimination they witnessed in the school system and disturbed by experiences with school staff.
Back in 2005, when her oldest daughter was just a first grader, Muhammed, who is a Black mother and a longtime education advocate, saw teachers discriminating against children of color in myriad ways—from ignoring the individual education plans for students with disabilities, to neglecting to provide translation services for parents, to not offering students of color more rigorous educational tracks.
When her daughter was in middle school, her teacher praised her academic aptitude, but failed to suggest opportunities for more rigorous learning—until Muhammed pressed her to do so.
"When I finally asked if there was more work she could give my daughter, she reached into her desk and pulled a large stack of papers out and said, 'Well this is what I've offered some other students, if you are interested.'" A similar situation happened just a couple years later.
Muhammed realized that if she was experiencing difficulties with school staff for her middle-class children from a home of two college-educated, English-speaking parents who excelled academically, the experience of parents whose children struggled in school because of disabilities, language barriers, or other challenges was probably much worse.
When she met a group of parents through her daughter's school at a parent support program called Study Circles, created by the YWCA of the Greater Triangle, Muhammed saw just how bad things were for other children. The group worked through the book Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn E. Singleton, and through their guided discussions Muhammed and the other Study Circle members were able to make connections between their experiences of discrimination, excessive discipline, and negligence of their children's academic needs by school administrators to historic and systemic racism.
"That was really the ground floor of building up my skills as an organizer," Muhammed explained.
Together, the parents realized that their experiences were not exceptions, but the rule for Black and Brown families who attended Wake County Schools.
In the spring of 2012, soon after the YWCA was abruptly defunded and shuttered, Muhammed and other parents from the group founded the Education Justice Alliance in an effort to continue the work of advocating for marginalized students in Wake County. In addition to hosting informational meetings for parents on everything from appealing a disciplinary action to attaining services for a student with special needs, EJA also joined in numerous lawsuits against WCPSS alleging cases ranging from denying against Spanish-speaking caregivers access to school forms in their first language to discrimination against students with disabilities.
"We've always had a strategy, right, to connect with decision-makers," Muhammed explained. "And to have conversations with decision-makers around these issues of disproportionality."
'I like to find drugs'
In 2013, SROs and Raleigh police arrested eight students from Enloe High School for a water balloon fight on senior prank day. The police tackled and threatened to taze students as young as 15. The incident made national news.
In response, Legal Aid NC filed another federal complaint against WCPSS, the Sheriff's office, and nine other municipal departments by for the school system's "overreliance on unregulated school policing practices… in response to minor infractions of school rules, [that result] in the routine violation of students' educational and constitutional rights." The complaint was submitted by several groups, including EJA and the newly formed student-led group, North Carolina Heroes Emerging Among Teens (or NC HEAT).
One section of the complaint was dedicated to detailing the accounts of eight young people who were brutally attacked and disciplined by SROs and other security and teaching staff from 2011 to 2013.
This report included details of a 16-year-old disabled student, referred to as T.S, who in the fall of 2011 was attacked in the hallway by two other students. Instead of helping him, the same SRO who had targeted him just days earlier sprayed pepper spray directly in his face at close range, and then handcuffed him. When T.S.'s mother came to pick him up hours later, he was still handcuffed and had not received any assistance for his burning face besides an administrator tossing him a couple tissues. Administrators did not tell T.S's mother what happened; she noticed he couldn't see and he explained.
That same year, T.W.—another student who shared their story in the 2014 complaint — was stopped by an SRO on his first day of school as a high school junior while standing in line to receive his class schedule. When T.W., who is also Black with both emotional and learning disabilities, resisted the barrage of questioning by the officer, he was pulled out of line. A second officer arrived. They slammed him against a window, yanked his arms violently behind his back, and handcuffed him. He never resisted. Administrators looked on with shock but no aid as he was taken to a solitary room.
See also: Alabama wrote the book on Black Lives Matter, but today's challenges to defund police have Freedom Fighters back at the drawing board
"I like to find drugs," one of the officers said, according to T.W.'s testimony as they searched his backpack. Neither officer read him his Miranda Rights, but one officer is quoted as saying, "When you come to school, your rights are forfeited."
After the illegal search, the officers found a lighter. According to the complaint, "The principal suspended T.W. out-of-school for two school days, and the SRO finished his attack against T.W. with a citation to adult criminal court for interfering with a police investigation." He and his mother had to go to court four times, causing T.W. to miss school and his mother to miss work.
The officer who arrested T.W. claimed he did so because he looked older than the other kids in line. To this the judge replied, "That's just like walking on the sidewalk while being Black," hearkening to Jim Crow Laws. All charges were eventually dropped, but traumatized T.W. never went back to high school.
With heightened attention on Wake County's SROs, the school board members held a highly anticipated meeting on June 3, 2014, before a room of concerned parents, students, and advocates. They were there to witness the reveal of the newest memorandum of understanding agreement between the Board and the local police departments. The most notable changes from the 2009 MOU were, according to reports from ABC11 News, "requiring school resource officers to report—by race and school—when, how many, and which students they refer to the criminal justice system. It would also add more accountability and diversity training."
Local activist organizations like EJA and NC HEAT—who were in attendance and spoke during public comment—were not satisfied with the rules, which left much up to the officer's discretion, including use of force and limits on referrals to the justice system.
While the number of criminal arrests was dropping in school (which was consistent with the overall decrease of crime among youth), discrimination in arrests and employment of exclusionary discipline measures in Wake County schools continued. According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) Racial Equity Report Card for Wake County Schools, 28 percent of the 1,287 juvenile delinquency complaints in the County during the 2018-2019 school year were school-related. Black students represented 73 percent of the complaints, even though they comprise 22 percent of Wake County's student body. Wake County also saw 9,947 short-term suspensions, and 61 percent those suspended were Black students.
Viral video reignites the movement
In 2017, a video of a teenage girl slammed into the ground by a school officer, picked up, and taken away with her arms held behind her back went viral. The girl was a student at Rolesville High School, a town in northeast Wake County.
The education and justice activism community began calling for the end of the SRO program as the world's eyes were focused on the Board and how they would respond.
The school board, however, rejected making sweeping changes to the SRO program for a second time. The most significant change was that SROs were now required to report the number of students that were arrested and referred to the criminal justice system. But officers still had the final say in how they disciplined students.
Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline was a founding mission for EJA, and after the assault of the Rolesville student and the lack of action in response, Muhammed's work intensified. She connected with more parents of marginalized students, as well as concerned school administrators and board members.
"When your children are dealing with suspensions or expulsions, there's a level of shame that you can internalize as a parent." Muhammed shared. She began "to carve out a space that helps parents feel supported and armed with the knowledge and information that can help them advocate for their own young people, but also to really make some systemic changes."
Muhammed and others have continued to pressure the Board, which promised to be more inclusive and transparent when the SRO contract came up for review in 2020. But they're up against continued investment in SROs.
Kenneth Alonzo Anderson of Howard University released a report on SROs in the fall of 2018 that had two important points. The first was that North Carolina kept very poor records on the efficacy of SRO programs. But the second drove home the point many families impacted by over-policing of marginalized students had been saying for years: "Increasing investment in school resource officers does not lead to safer schools."
This is the first story in a two-part series about Wake County students organizing against police brutality. Read part two here.