Forsyth County has the highest rate of charging juveniles with criminal offenses in school among the state’s five largest school districts, according to new data from the state Department of Public Safety. And juvenile complaints are seven times more likely to affect black students than white students in both Forsyth and Guilford counties.
New data indicates that Forsyth County generates more school-based referrals into the juvenile justice system proportionate to student population than any of the other five largest counties in the state.
Validated data from the state Department of Public Safety provided to Triad City Beat indicates that juvenile court counselors logged 573 school-based complaints from Forsyth County in 2016. Considering Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ 2016 population of 54,528 students, that equates to 1,051 complaints for every 100,000 students. Guilford, the Triad’s other urban county, generated 513 complaints, equivalent to 713 for every 100,000 students. In comparison, Wake and Durham — the two largest school systems in the Triangle — generated less than a quarter as many complaints when adjusted for population as Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
Both Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and Guilford County Schools rely on officers employed by local law enforcement agencies to maintain public safety. Those school resource officers, typically known as SROs, file juvenile complaints — the equivalent of criminal charges for adults — that funnel children into the court system. The phenomenon is widely known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“The juvenile system is often treated as a dumping ground for North Carolina’s public school students,” a recent report by the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice noted. “Students are pushed out of school and onto a path toward the juvenile and criminal systems as a result of suspension, school policing, and other punitive disciplinary process.” The report also noted that children in the juvenile system “face harmful collateral consequences,” including further entanglement in the criminal justice system and expulsion from school, along with barriers to driving privileges, employment, public housing and military service.
Kenneth Simington, the deputy superintendent for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said the numbers have district leaders’ attention.
“It will cause us to have some discussion and reflection on what the other urban school districts are doing,” he said. “How do their law enforcement agencies work with their schools?”
He added that he wants district leaders to sit down with their law enforcement counterparts at the Winston-Salem Police Department, Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and Kernersville Police Department “to share the data and talk about some of the factors that impact the data.”
The data provided by the state Department of Public Safety also indicates juvenile complaints are far more likely to affect black students than their white counterparts. While black children account for 350, or 61.1 percent, of the school-based complaints in Forsyth County, blacks make up only 28.5 percent of the student population at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. A TCB analysis found that black students in Forsyth County are seven times more likely to be subject to juvenile complaints than white students — a criminalization gap that is roughly in line with the state’s other four large urban school districts.
The disproportionate referral of black students into the juvenile system aligns with the racial disparity in discipline in the school district — a phenomenon that is familiar to senior administrators.
“We certainly are concerned about the disproportionality between minority students and white students,” Simington said. “Our discipline does reflect a disproportionality, specifically with regard to African-American males.”
While not as egregious as Forsyth County, the disproportionate referral of black children into the juvenile system in Guilford County is also off the charts. Black students are seven times as likely as white students to be subject to juvenile complaints — a criminalization gap that is roughly in line with the state’s other three large urban school districts in the Charlotte area and the Triangle.
Charlos Banks, the executive director for student services and character development for Guilford County Schools, made a similar observation.
“Disparity and disproportionality in school discipline is something our school district is very aware of,” she said.
Deena Hayes-Greene, a Guilford County School Board member, cautions that focusing on discipline in isolation can “paint a picture of black deviance” that allows people to excuse the negative outcomes that black children experience.
“To see this as a standalone issue individualizes it and moves it away from seeing the impact of race on education,” she said. “These students that you’re talking about are under-identified for gifted and talented programs. They’re over-identified for the special education categories that are determined around subjective behavior and emotional things. Academically, they are performing on grade level in the third grade but not on grade level by the eighth grade. What happened? Race is the thing that is woven through all this. We’ve got more black students enrolled in career and technical education programs, but our last report showed that more white students graduated with the required certification to enter the labor market after graduation.”
Monica Walker, executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Guilford County Schools, said she was surprised by the number of black students referred into the juvenile system in the county.
“We are trying to figure out how to work more successfully with SROs,” she said. District leaders became aware through the African-American Male Initiative, a pilot program at eight schools, that black students are more likely to be cited by officers for discretionary offenses, she said.
Jonathan Wilson, director of security for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, offered a more sanguine assessment of the district’s relationship with law enforcement.
“Our relationship with SROs is very good,” he said. “They’re not looking to create a criminal record for a student, but we do want to hold the kids accountable.”
Assessments of how well educators and law enforcement navigate the line between discipline and criminal behavior vary from person to person and district to district.
“There is no gray area,” Wilson, the director of security for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said.
As an example, a student stealing another child’s pencil would be handled by a teacher or administrator as a discipline problem, while a report of an adult exposing themselves to a child at a bus stop would generate a criminal complaint, he said. A fight involving two students with mutual responsibility would be considered an affray; SROs would typically charge a student with assault only if they obtained evidence, such as video footage, showing one student as the clear aggressor in a fight.
Hayes-Greene, the Guilford County School board member, disagreed. She said the line between administrative discipline and criminal adjudication is often hazy.
“That’s been a problem,” she said. “Those boundaries are ill-defined. Some principals let SROs take over. Our staff, whether they’re principals or senior-level administrators, are unprepared and under-prepared to understand the dynamics of race.”
Hayes-Greene credits Guilford County Schools with reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions overall, but in her 15 years on the board, she said the racial discipline gap has remained largely unchanged.
Both school districts have made efforts to improve academic outcome for students of color, which in theory should promote better disciplinary outcomes.
Banks noted that most referrals to the juvenile system originate in the classroom. The district has responded by providing additional professional development to help teachers improve classroom management, while shifting from a punitive to a restorative model of discipline.
“It teaches students to be accountable,” Monica Walker said. “Historically, in our district, a whole lot of what we were doing in terms of our code of conduct has been just to punish students. The restorative process holds the district accountable. It makes us do what we do best; that is to teach. It helps students resolve their own conflicts.”
Clarification: The original version of this story mischaracterized the disparity between African-American and white students in juvenile school-based complaints. To be more accurate, the story should have said that juvenile complaints are seven times more likely to affect black students than white students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and other school systems across the state. The story has been changed to correct the misleading language.