By Ben Rappaport
Schools in Bladen, Columbus and Scotland counties referred only Black students to law enforcement for disorderly conduct for the past six years, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
Bladen, Columbus and Scotland were among 25 of the state’s 100 counties where schools referred only Black students to police for disorderly conduct from 2017 to 2023, according to the Oct. 19 report, “Consequences of Cops in North Carolina Schools.”
The report highlights racial disparities in the discipline of students at public, private and charter schools since the “disorderly conduct in schools” law went into effect in 2016. Under the law, it is a crime to “disrupt, disturb, or interfere with teaching.”
Instead of law enforcement officers, the report argues, schools need more mental health professionals like counselors and nurses.
During the report’s time frame, Black students across the state received disorderly conduct referrals to law enforcement at four times the rate of white students. Black students accounted for less than one-fourth of the student population but got 56% of the disorderly conduct referrals.
In Scotland County, Black students make up 41% of the student population but received all 64 referrals from 2017 to 2023, the report says. Black students make up 36% of the student population in Bladen County and 30% in Columbus County.
Meredith Bounds, a spokesperson for Scotland County Schools, said the district aims to bring an equitable approach to discipline and law enforcement referrals.
“We do not discriminate based on race, color, religion, gender, etc. when it comes to disciplinary consequences,” Bounds said in a statement to the Border Belt Independent on Monday. “All students are accountable for their actions and consequences are based on Board Policy and our schools’ Student Code of Conduct.”
In Robeson County, Black students were referred at a rate that was seven times higher than their white peers.
According to annual reports from the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, disorderly conduct was the second most commonly charged school-based offense from 2018 through 2022 across the state. There were more than 1,100 complaints in 2019 and more than 1,300 in 2022.
“The law gives police officers discretion to define when, and under what circumstances, typical childhood conduct crosses the line into criminal behavior,” the ACLU said in its report, which calls for repealing the law.
Law enforcement in local schools
The report says the state’s investment in increasing police presence in schools has led to increased criminalization of student behavior. It has also bolstered and supported the school-to-prison pipeline — the idea that youth are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal legal systems, according to the report.
“North Carolina’s massive investments in police are not paying off: police officers do not improve safety in schools,” the report says.
In the state's Border Belt region, some school districts have seen an increase in spending for school-based law enforcement officers, often called school resource officers.
In July, the Whiteville City Schools board agreed to pay the Columbus County Sheriff's Office nearly $300,000 for SROs. That was up nearly $69,000 from the previous year's contract, according to The News Reporter.
Bill Rogers, who has served as Columbus County sheriff for about a year since former sheriff Jody Greene resigned, said he has worked to ensure a deputy is at every public school all day. Previously, he said, deputies would often spend half a day at schools.
"That's our children," Rogers said in a wide-ranging interview with the Border Belt Independent on Thursday. "I want to make positive there's protection there."
Bladen County Schools secured funding last year to hire school resource officers. County commissioners considered a tax hike to fund the officers, but the N.C. Department of Public Instruction awarded the district a $1.5 million grant to support officer training and retention.
While disorderly conduct referrals to law enforcement do not always result in criminal charges, “Referrals have collateral consequences for students on emotional, social, and academic levels regardless of outcome,” said Amanda Meyer, an attorney at the ACLU’s national Racial Justice Program.
Schools across the state have seen a spike in all school-based complaints to law enforcement, not just for disorderly conduct. Black students were referred to law enforcement at three times the rate of white students between 2017 and 2022, according to the report.
In Bladen County, the disparity was even more stark: Black students were referred at 10 times the rate of white students, the data shows. In Columbus County, Black students were referred at nearly five times the rate of white students.
“We regularly review the demographics of suspended students to see if there are trends that need to be addressed,” Kelly Jones, spokesperson for Columbus County Schools, told the Border Belt Independent in a statement.
Jones said Columbus County Schools aims to reduce the number of discipline referrals for all students by 10% annually through positive behavior reinforcement and partnerships with mental health organizations and. “The best way to prevent legal referrals is to prevent behaviors that escalate into legal issues,” he said.
To reduce racial disparities, the ACLU report says the state should invest in “partnerships to increase the availability and number of culturally affirming school-based mental health providers.”
“Mental health concerns and suicide for Black youth have been increasing, in part because of police violence, overt racism and the stressors caused by structural racism,” Michele Delgado, staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement. “It is time for North Carolina to invest in kids, schools and communities, and prioritize policies that actually make schools safe and welcoming learning environments for all children.”