Black Students Face Harsher Punishments Than All Others in Wake County, North Carolina

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Wake County Public School Bus/ Dave Dewitt
Wake County Public School Bus/ Dave Dewitt

The Wake County school system discriminates against African-American students, unfairly disciplining them, parents told officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on Tuesday.

Federal officials organized the meeting in response to overwhelming criticism from Black parents and students in the North Carolina district dating back over five years. The state’s largest school district was the subject of a November 2010 lawsuit filed by the NAACP and other groups alleging civil rights violations on the basis of race. An investigation soon followed.

The meeting, attended by a crowd of 75 at the Vital Link Center in Raleigh, addressed the extreme actions of teachers in handing out discipline to African-American students.

Gwen McKenzie gave a first-hand account of a white teacher’s physical altercation with her son, during which the child was “snatched” by his backpack. She confronted the teacher.

“They try to break our boys when they are young,” McKenzie said.

Parent advocate Geraldine Alshamy shared the story of a 5-year-old boy suspended five times since January. Alshamy said the child is aware of differences in the way his white classmates are treated versus the Black ones.

“If a child in kindergarten can already see that teachers are insensitive and teachers are prejudiced, what hope can they have when they’re in third grade?” Alshamy said.

Other attendees criticized school resource officers’ harsh tactics toward Black students.

Former Southeast Raleigh High student Ajamu Dillahunt called for the removal of officers from all schools.

“There’s a war on Black students,” Dillahunt said. “There’s a war on Black America.”

The district released student discipline data for the first time earlier this year. The numbers were clear. During the 2014-2015 school year, Black students in Wake County made up only 24 percent of the student population but accounted for 63 percent of suspensions.

Additionally, 69 percent of school resource officers’ court system referrals were Black students. And they were 1.7 times more likely to arrest Black students for fights and theft than others.

This troubling trend exists in school districts across the country. Department of Education data shows that Black boys face harsher discipline than any other group of students. More than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or those referred to law enforcement are Black or Hispanic, according to reports.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2012, “Education is the civil rights of our generation. The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidelines urging school officials to use restraint in bringing law enforcement into matters that could be resolved in other ways.

Wake County school system officials said they are making efforts to reduce the number of issues referred to local police.

Board member Keith Sutton said, “Once you get law enforcement involved, it’s very hard to get them out. It should be the last resort.”

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