Racial disparities in student arrests are getting worse in NC, study shows

Barwell Road Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina has one of the largest number of police officers in schools in the country. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Michael McElroy

November 13, 2023

A police presence in schools does little to improve safety, a new study highlights, instead increasing the chances that students who get into trouble will be sent to police officers instead of educators.

The year after a teen gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018, a committee appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina recommended that officials place at least one armed police officer in every public school in the state.

The recommendation, among others, would help prevent a similar tragedy from happening here, the bipartisan committee members wrote in their report.

But an increased police presence does little to improve safety in schools, several studies have shown over the years, and instead increases the chances that students who get into trouble at school will be sent to police officers instead of educators, even for age appropriate behavioral issues.

Now, a new report by the ACLU of North Carolina released last month found that this long standing problem is getting worse, especially for students of color.

From 2017 to 2023, North Carolina schools referred Black students to school police officers 2.4 times as often as they did white students, the report found. The numbers are even higher for Black girls and for students with disabilities.

In more than a dozen counties with either equal or majority white youth populations, none of the students referred to school resources officers on disorderly conduct charges were white.

In Guilford County, where the white and Black youth populations are essentially equal, school officials issued 201 law enforcement referrals for Black students and none for white students.

“The presence of police officers [in schools] harms students, including by criminalizing typical adolescent behavior that police choose to deem disorderly or otherwise criminal,” the report says.

“For example, police officers are empowered to arrest students for disorderly conduct in schools—a criminal offense in North Carolina—that then funnels them into the criminal legal system.”

These disparities, the report concludes, are by design.

A matter of policy

North Carolina has more police officers in schools than most other states, the report says, and has spent more than $100 million since 2016 increasing that number. At the same time, it has drastically decreased the amount of public school funding overall and offered teacher pay raises that don’t even keep pace with inflation.

The result?

Widespread staffing shortages and a decreasing ability to recruit and retain teachers.

Fewer than half of the state’s school districts have the recommended number of school nurses and counselors. Many schools don’t have any at all.

A mental health crisis

North Carolina ranks last in the United States in school funding effort, a measure of how much a state spends versus how much it could spend, and has one of the worst youth mental health rates in the country.

As youth mental health issues increase, so do behavioral issues.

But instead of responding with trained professionals, the schools are sending children to untrained police officers who treat the students as criminals, the study says, and thrust them into a school-to-prison pipeline that many will never escape.

“The choice to prioritize funding police officers instead of teachers, counselors, and other school based mental health providers has harmful and long-lasting consequences for North Carolina’s children, especially children of color and children with disabilities,” the study says.

“Children are experiencing more acute mental health needs after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing inequities for students of color, as is visible in rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, particularly for Black youth.”

The report continues: “In the past two decades, rates of suicide among Black youth have increased faster than in any other racial/ethnic group with suicide rates among Black boys aged 10 to 19 increasing by 60%.”

But the schools are not equipped to handle this kind of need.

With the shortage of counselors, social workers, and psychologists, schools turn to police when these mental health issues get loud or disruptive—especially so when students of color are having issues, according to the ACLU’s analysis.

The racial disparities cited in the report are glaring:

  • Schools refer Black girls to law enforcement at a rate three times higher than they do white girls.
  • Black boys with disabilities get sent to law enforcement two times as often as white boys with disabilities.
  • When students returned to the classroom after pandemic shutdowns, the ratio of referrals for White, Latino and Native American students eventually returned to the pre pandemic rates. But for Black students they nearly tripled.

Schools are no safer

Funding for school police officers in North Carolina has increased by 170% since 2018, but a separate study found that “Increasing policing and training did not reduce serious incidents like assaults, homicide, bomb threats, possession and use of alcohol and drugs, or the possession of weapons.”

What it did do, however, was lead to an increase in the number of students arrested and instances of “police officers directing abusive, unlawful, and violent behavior towards students.”

North Carolina students, the ACLU study shows, “have been tased, tackled, handcuffed, and pepper sprayed.”

Several of the officers assigned to schools, the report says, were themselves arrested on charges of committing sex crimes with students.

‘The way forward’

“Children in North Carolina are over-policed and under-supported in school, and Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately harmed,” the report says.

To fix the problem, the report’s authors make several recommendations, including:

  • Increased funding for qualified mental health providers in schools and the surrounding communities.
  • Decriminalizing many typical childhood behaviors so that non-violent disruptions don’t thrust children into the legal system.
  • Improving the accuracy and transparency of local data collection.
  • Better training teachers and staff members to deal with students with specific disabilities.

These moves, the report says, will help North Carolina ensure “that students are supported in school rather than funneled out of it.”

Shifting the emphasis away from disorderly conduct alone would make a huge difference, they write.

“These types of laws provide unbridled discretion for law enforcement to criminalize typical adolescent behavior, and fuel long-lasting harms for youth funneled into the criminal legal system.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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