There is no direct means by which a student becomes unemployed, a dropout or a criminal; there is no single decision, policy or process directly responsible for the transformation.
But some demographic factors tend to tip the scales toward future success or failure. The intersection of poverty and color can be a statistically dangerous place to grow up.
Known as the school-to-prison pipeline, the progression from the classroom to court more closely resembles a maze. The stories are all different; they have unique starting points, plot twists and endings.
Please explore our site to learn more about race, class and education in Durham, North Carolina.
Rodney Moore often shakes his head in disappointment when he talks about himself.
His face is thin and sports a goatee; twitchy, he wrings his hands when he talks. He is black and on the small side. Three tattoos decorate his muscular arms. His favorite features a skull with a money sign in it and reads “In due time.” Baggy clothes hang off of his thin frame, and he wears flat-brimmed baseball caps, usually with different sports team logos. His mood seems to depend on the day – some days are better than others.
Moore keeps his head down and averts his eyes, but when he does make eye contact, he looks much younger than he is. At 22, he has a host of drug possession charges on his record, has been in jail a handful of times and had one five-month prison sentence last year for felony possession of marijuana.
Moore dropped out of high school when he was 17 after being shot in the pelvis while walking to the store; he was skipping a court appointment for a drug possession charge. He still doesn’t know whose fault the shooting was – his or the friend’s that he was with. It could have been either.
In the midst of rehabilitation following the shooting, he could not take his end-of-the year-tests to advance into the 11th grade, although school wasn’t much of a priority at the time anyways. He decided to give up, and left Hillside High School and Durham Public Schools for good.
Rodney Moore, 22
“I just started feeling like, why does stuff happen to me? And what am I doing? What did I do to lead up to this?” he said.
He can pinpoint where he began to deviate; he did well in school until he was 12 years old. Then, his grandmother passed away around the same time his parents split up. He also found out his father had been doing drugs, and a stage of depression settled in, he said.
Moore began to smoke marijuana himself. He quit sports and started to act out in school, beginning a cycle of suspension and expulsion that never ended. He went to juvenile court first, then adult court once he turned 16, but kept getting caught, most of the time with drugs.
“Whatever I was going through, I just smoked to make me feel better,” he said. “And that ended up messing up school because I started feeling lazy and not wanting to get up. It was like, ‘man, forget school.’ Now I wish I would have just stayed on that right track.”
This cycle went on for years. Now, Moore said he is tired of it all and frustrated with the decisions he has made and continues to make in the midst of family, financial and legal stress and an ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety.
“I’m tired of repeating the same stuff. It’s like a big circle,” he said.
Moore found himself caught in a tangled web of decisions, processes and policies that carried him from being a student to being a criminal. Although activists refer to this as the school-to-prison pipeline, the term oversimplifies a complicated phenomenon for which it is impossible to place responsibility on one party.
The transition from student to criminal occurs nationally and for a myriad of reasons. It presents itself uniquely in North Carolina because of the state’s legal policy of treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for criminal offenses in court. It is one of only two states – the other being New York – that does so.
Although this funneling process happens in Durham, there is also a great degree of pushback against it. Educators, lawyers, activists and those involved in the justice system are working together, looking for solutions to a complicated problem.
One of these is Durham County’s chief District Court judge, Marcia Morey, who advocates against what she refers to as the pipeline and is creating solutions to help alleviate it.
“I think the court system and the school system is trying to be smarter about how we do things because we need to look at the long run,” she said. “What’s really going to help our youth for tomorrow?”
In reality, the pipeline is better described as a maze. There are multiple points of entry, both direct and indirect. After entering, students can take a multitude of paths. They can get in trouble in school; they can have run-ins with law enforcement outside of school, leading to poor attendance; they can simply struggle without receiving adequate help, a symptom of insufficient resources, leading to dropout and the harsh reality of the limited job opportunities imposed by the lack of a high school diploma.
The school-to-court progression can start as early as elementary school if children aren’t receiving academic support from their parents, begin falling behind in school or start developing behavioral issues.
“As these problems in schools start, often they escalate,” Morey said. Generally friendly and calm, her voice takes on an edge at times when she speaks of the issue, especially if it is asked whether students are getting what they deserve. “And then when they get beyond the school’s control, they can bleed over into the juvenile justice system, with complaints coming from school-based behaviors. And, if in North Carolina they’re 16, it can be criminal charges filed by SROs [school resource officers] or police officers and a child is put into the criminal pipeline.”
Distinct groups of students are at higher risk for becoming criminals. The labyrinth traps disproportionate amounts of black males and students with disabilities. School suspension, dropout, arrests and incarceration rates all reflect a racial bias against minorities, particularly black, male youth.
“For anyone to say that’s because blacks commit more crimes and the kids are more undisciplined, that’s just outright prejudice, and that’s an assumption,” Morey said. “And we need to debunk that.”
Peggy Nicholson, an attorney with Legal Aid NC, said that often, racism is unintentional; it can be ingrained in policies or can simply be implicit bias.
“They can’t point to a single principal, teacher, board member, that is the cause of that, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do something about it, because it is discrimination,” Nicholson said.
A History Of Zero Tolerance
A year ago, Deputy Tisha Jones traded in a job patrolling the streets for a job in a school – Lowe’s Grove Middle School.
At first, she seems tough. Her hair is cut short, and although she smiles enough, it’s clear that she doesn’t put up with nonsense.
She looks a little less tough in photographs of her with students at the Special Olympics. She sounds a little less tough when she’s explaining why she thinks her job is important, and why she makes a point to compliment students frequently (“because they don’t get it at home”), or when she says she finds her peace in the school’s two special needs classrooms, which she visits daily. At the end of an in-depth conversation about the students she works with, she doesn’t seem tough at all – she seems compassionate.
She understands her responsibility to keep the school safe and to discipline students when they deserve it. But she also understands the role she plays in mentoring them, guiding them and supporting them.
“We’re not school cops – we’re student resource officers,” she said.
Jones has learned that students bring more than the contents of their book bag with them to school, and this changes the way she views her job. She knows that some students won’t respond well to being yelled at, while others know nothing else. She has learned that some kids need to hear a word of the day, like “focus” or “positive thoughts.” She has also learned how to discern which kids have parents who are involved in their lives, and which ones don’t.
“What do you do with those kids? You teach them,” she said. “And the one thing that I press, especially with my kids, they need words of admiration. And that’s one of the biggest things you can do for somebody is tell them, you look nice today, and I’m proud of you, you did well. They don’t hear that a lot.”
Jones cannot place blame for the school-to-prison pipeline on one party; rather, she refers to the old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Many people share the responsibility of forming who a child will become.
Her supervisor, Lieutenant Raheem Aleem, agrees.
“We all have to work together. We have to know that we’re all valuable spokes in this wheel,” he said, referring to the processes involved in the school-to-prison pipeline – or maze.
There are a multitude of entry points to the maze, the paths inside vary and the exit – if there is one – looks different for every participant. Many of those captured by the maze are predictable, but some aren’t.
The intersection of race and class is a statistically dangerous place to be nationally and in Durham. Poverty and color are indicators of a higher likelihood for both educational failure and run-ins with the law.
Graduation is less attainable for students behind from the beginning of their education than those who are proficient, studies show. Poverty further compounds this disparity, creating a chasm between wealthy, successful students and those who struggle both academically and financially.
Dropout sets a student up for a host of complications later in life and can, in many cases, be directly or indirectly related to incarceration. Dropout and court involvement have a reciprocal relationship; both increase chances of the other.
High school dropouts are also much more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates. Sometimes, this can encourage a criminal lifestyle as a means of survival.
Dropout and incarceration rates are skewed against minorities, particularly black students. And while race is one indicator of dropout likelihood, class is another; low-income students from low-income families are much more likely to drop out or graduate late than those from wealthy families. Wealth is also not equally distributed by race, and minorities are more likely to live in poverty.
A child born into poverty or a certain race is not guaranteed to drop out of high school, dropouts are not guaranteed to be unemployed and none of the above are guaranteed to end up in prison. But these factors do increase a student’s likelihood of falling onto a path ultimately ending in court involvement or incarceration.
Lawrence Mitchell began his education with the odds stacked against him. He grew up in a high-crime, low-income public housing neighborhood and has always struggled with his reading level. Fortunately, a stream of mentors guided him on the path to high school graduation and away from trouble. In ninth grade, he was connected with a tutor.
“I don’t think I would have made it if I didn’t have a tutor,” he said. “I think I would have dropped out and just quit on life.”
He attributes his academic struggles largely to a lack of support where he most needed it: at home. His father moved out when Mitchell was young, so Mitchell grew up with his mother, grandmother and sister.
“I didn’t have the help at home. I didn’t have the support – so like the mom, the father, their support,” he said.
Now 19, Mitchell graduated from Jordan High School last year and works two jobs in Durham. With graduation under his belt, he worries about someone else: his nephew. His sister’s son, currently nine, has already failed a grade. He already gets into trouble at school, although for minor things like not listening and talking back.
“Little things that if he had support on, they wouldn’t be happening,” Mitchell said.
Lawrence Mitchell, 19
Making The Grade
Emily Welch remembers very little of the fight in which she almost killed a girl. An assistant principal and the school security guard told her after the fact that she had the girl by her hair, twisting her neck. A medical examination revealed Welch had almost broken the girl’s neck.
Only 16, she knows she deserved the long-term suspension she received from Wake County Public Schools. Beautiful with dark hair, light eyes and a nose ring, Welch speaks pensively. Remorseful, she still believes in herself.
“She didn’t deserve it,” Welch said. “It hurts me to know that because I know I can be so much better than I was.”
Welch currently lives with foster parents in Durham through a court-ordered program, although she previously lived with her birth mother until she was expelled in December 2012. When she relocated to Durham, she chose not to enroll in Durham Public Schools.
Born in Arizona, she lived there only eight months. Her father, an alcoholic, tried to harm her family and was shot by law enforcement, she said. She doesn’t know the details.
“I’m still lost. It’s bothering just knowing,” she said.
Welch struggled academically and behaviorally in elementary school. In eighth grade, a girl stood up in the school auditorium and told her that she should be dead with her father. Some students laughed; the teachers around didn’t really respond. Her peers then began to treat her differently; she no longer fit in. Her depression –diagnosed through the school system – deepened.
She only made it partway through ninth grade before she was suspended and, afterward, taken to juvenile court. She decided not to go back to school, opting instead to earn her GED.
As Welch recounts her story, one word comes up over and over again – recognition. Never comfortable or accepted in school, she now feels at peace with who she is and free to be herself.
“I want to make myself known in a good way. I want to be recognized to the full recognition,” she said.
School discipline is often cited as one of the key ways students are funneled from schools into the criminal justice system. At the same time, educators say they do what they can to keep schools safe and classrooms undisrupted.
Since the early 1990s, schools across the country have adopted a series of zero-tolerance policies, which are generally a set of predetermined disciplinary responses to school code violations involving weapons, drugs, violence, smoking and school disruptions. Often, these disciplinary policies result in removal from school through short-term suspensions, long-term suspensions or expulsions.
North Carolina does not formally have a zero-tolerance policy. The legislature amended the state school discipline law in 2011 to prevent local school districts from enacting zero tolerance policies, but local school boards still have broad freedom in determining and enforcing disciplinary measures.
“There’s a pendulum, and I think after Columbine in 1999, the pendulum swung to zero tolerance,” said Marcia Morey, Durham’s chief District Court judge. “And I think it went way too far.”
Suspensions and expulsions are widely criticized by activists, who say that it is damaging to keep a student out of school. Not only is a student falling behind in the classroom, they say, but that student is also more likely to fail a grade, to drop out, to commit a crime, to be incarcerated as an adult and to lack employment as a result.
Discipline can also lead directly to arrest. Nationally, schools are increasingly hiring law enforcement personnel to be present in schools. Known as school resource officers, or SROs, they are present in every middle and high school in Durham County and handle disciplinary situations that formerly would have been handled by school staff. The officers are part of the sheriff’s department.
SROs have become the subject of intense debate. One side argues that their presence not only has no impact on preventing school violence, but it also increases feelings of alienation among students in schools and the likelihood that routine misbehavior will become criminalized.
The other side points to incidents such as school shootings or, more commonly, criminal activity in schools as necessitating the presence of law enforcement.
“There are statistics that show kids are going to jail,” said Raheem Aleem, the lieutenant for the community services division of the Durham sheriff’s department, to which the SRO program belongs. “But I don’t think you can put that all on law enforcement’s shoulders, because we are there to do something. If not for the grace of God and the position our officers are in in the schools, imagine what would happen.”
Not only do SROs help keep schools safe, Aleem said, but they also work to repair broken relationships between law enforcement and the students they serve. They attempt to guide students in the right direction and to counter what they learn in after-school environments.
“Our motto is we want to build bridges, not walls,” he said.
School discipline reflects further racial imbalances. Black students, particularly males, are suspended at disproportionately high rates in Durham, as are students with disabilities. The highest rate of suspension occurs at the demographic intersection of color and disability.
Responding to these disparate suspension rates, Legal Aid – the nonprofit Peggy Nicholson works for – filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in April last year. The department is currently investigating.
One suspension often leads to another, and a history of suspension can drastically increase risk of dropping out of school.
The awareness of the impact schools can have drives Aleem – who has the voice and demeanor of a grizzly bear but who also quotes poetry – to find ways to intervene in students’ lives.
“Sometimes, you gotta meet kids where they are, and I think that our education system – sometimes they don’t do that,” he said. “Yeah, we need to inspire them to get here, but people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. We gotta get the kids to understand it…once they know you care, you got an open door.”
Short-Term Suspensions in Durham
North Carolina Juvenile Justice Process
Derrick Fullard received his first felony charge when he was 17 and in the ninth grade.
He was skipping class with some friends – a regular habit of his – when the police arrived. While he and some friends hung out in the woods behind Jordan High School in Durham, a student had reported a burglary to the principal, who had called the police. Within the group of six, three were charged: the two perpetrators and Fullard, who was charged as an accomplice, he said. He believes he was targeted over his friends because of the long dreadlocks he had at the time.
“That was the beginning of running into trouble with the law,” he said.
Now 32 with a long history of jail time and drug charges, Fullard never returned to school after his first arrest. Instead, he turned to the streets and odd jobs: the best he could do with no high school diploma and a felony charge on his permanent record.
Dark-skinned and attractive, Fullard speaks slowly and matter-of-factly. He rarely shows emotion while recounting the events of his life. An exception is when he talks about his yearlong stint in prison, which he completed in August of last year.
“It was just hell,” Fullard said. After over a decade of run-ins with the law and an accumulation of drug charges, he finally ran out of resources to pay for court fees and lawyers and began to disobey the conditions of his four different probation sentences. He then went to prison.
“The 10 to 12 months was my first prison term – first and last,” he said.
North Carolina is one of only two states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for all offenses. This has several implications, perhaps the most important of which is that arrests are put on a juveniles’ permanent record.
Various activists, including Marcia Morey, the county’s chief District Court judge, are working against this in Durham. Charging 16- and 17-year-olds as adults “has amazing consequences on a young person for their future,” she said.
Derrick Fullard, 32
“Down the road, we will do so much better with these kids if we educate them rather than if we give them a criminal conviction, which statistics show, will only snowball. And once they’re in the system, they stay in the system,” she said.
In response, she brainstormed a new diversion program for first-time offenders who have committed a misdemeanor crime. Now being implemented through the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center, it encourages law enforcement personnel – including SROs – to create incident reports rather than arrests for those eligible for the program. Had it been in place in 2012, between 501 and 531 youth would have been eligible. These youth would then have avoided an arrest on their permanent record.
“You’re probably talking about some really great kids who do something without really thinking it through,” said Kelly Andrews, the program coordinator. “The hope is showing them what these choices and decisions can do long-term.”
The diversion program has specific requirements and compels participants to undergo a specific process, including the completion of a program such as teen court, mediation, restitution and other programs that are, for the most part, currently available to those in the juvenile justice system.
A training session was held for the SROs in February to make them aware of the program; Aleem referred the first participant, a 16-year-old girl, to the program after catching her with marijuana on the streets. Other law enforcement officials will undergo trainings later.
“I think it’s a misconception that SROs want to arrest kids to get them out of school,” Andrews said. “I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think a lot of times, it’s issues where people don’t really know what to do, and at times, they’re just trying to get a child services.”
It is still law enforcement’s decision whether or not to file an incident report in place of an arrest.
Although arrest records create complications for juveniles down the road, jail time can have immediate consequences on their education.
Often, when a juvenile goes to jail – where they await trial – they receive no education services. While some jail stints can be brief, others can last for years.
Wendy Greene, an attorney and the director of the Incarcerated Youth Advocacy Project, has been involved in a group that is seeking to address the issue in the Durham County jail, where most school-age juveniles are not receiving education services. Students with individualized education plans, created for students with a wide range of disabilities, are receiving education services in the jail.
“Any interruption in their education is going to provide a whole new obstacle to them going back to school,” Greene said. “It’s just something the system has put in place that doesn’t have to prevent them from getting back on the right road.”
She said the likelihood of a student completing his or her education decrease when they spend substantial time away from school, and the time they spend in jail is simply a lost opportunity to intervene in students’ lives.
“I’m not saying they’re totally blameless, but I’m saying that we have an opportunity to be productive, and it’s like we’ve made a choice not to. And we need to think about that,” she said. “We really need to think about doing something about the school-to-prison pipeline. There’s some low-hanging fruit, and this is one of them.”
The Achievement Academy, a nonprofit in Durham that helps its students prepare for the GED test, is full of people who have realized the consequences of their mistakes. Rodney Moore, Emily Welch and Derrick Fullard are three of them.
Moore takes responsibility for his actions and said that although he asks why him, he knows that he is at fault for his current situation. But all the remorse in the world cannot change the fact that he is a high school dropout with a felony record.
“I messed up early in my life and it’s holding me back now,” he says. “I’m trying to have a better future because I have a messed up past.”
Fullard, the student who was arrested for burglary at age 17, fell into a cycle of crime partially because he had trouble finding a job with his arrest record.
“My record – it always came up. It made it very difficult. Being a young, black felon, no high school diploma, not too much work history – it was just extra difficult,” Fullard said.
Welch, on the other hand, was only 15 when she went to court. Therefore, her permanent record will not be affected; she sees everything that has happened to her merely as a setback.
Arrest has both direct and indirect consequences. As Fullard found out, committing a crime is expensive. He went to prison after he failed to pay the fees associated with his four cases of felony probation for drug charges. Fines and court fees are some of the direct consequences of an arrest; others can be probation, jail time or incarceration.
The indirect consequences of arrest can be even longer lasting, with increased difficulty in finding employment being only one of them. An arrest record can lead to the denial of public benefits such as financial aid for college, loss of housing, loss of professional licenses, deportation or denial of college admissions. Youth who have been arrested are also more likely to drop out of school.
These consequences can lead to a desperate spiral of criminal activity, often spurred on by the simple desire to survive. Once arrested, a person is much more likely to be arrested again.
“You forget the faces that you don’t see again, but you certainly remember the faces that you saw – that I saw – in juvenile court when they were 11 or 12, and they come back year after year and end up in prison, possibly for life,” Morey said. “But the successes are the ones we don’t see again that have done well.”
Trying youth as adults also increases their likelihood of re-offending. Some, like Fullard, receive help and find their way out of the cycle that entraps so many. Others are not so lucky and have yet to find a solution.
Brian Wiley is currently still in prison. He is 27 years old, has a fiancée and a six-year-old daughter named Angel, but has been incarcerated for the past five years.
He was recruited into the Bloodz, a criminal street gang, when he was 11, and after numerous suspensions and expulsions from Durham Public Schools, a stint in alternative school, dropout, multiple arrests and jail time, he is now part of the security threat group at the Pender Correctional Facility, near the east coast of North Carolina.
“My troubles did start in school and end in prison,” he wrote in a letter.
“I wish I would have had someone who would have talked to me that was going thru the same exact experiences,” he wrote, “my generations experiences, cause I would have took the time to sit and listen and I may not be here writing you today.”
This project began with a group of journalism students who wanted to cover a social issue.
We debated different ideas and landed on the school-to-prison pipeline. We did our research and had some background knowledge, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
We began gung-ho; we made phone calls, searched for subjects, poured over data and research and listened to guest speakers. We soaked in everything we could about the school-to-prison pipeline.
And then things became difficult. People didn’t call back, subjects didn’t show up and what we learned didn’t exactly match up with what we had first thought. Data wasn’t readily available; one interview only led to three more and Durham Public Schools, for the most part, ignored us.
This project only began to make sense when we realized that the school-to-prison pipeline is actually an inadequate description of something that more closely resembles a maze. There is nothing linear about it, and we never met the subject that fit our original expectations. Instead, we broadened our perspective to accommodate the complexity of the topic we had chosen.
Rather than finding a sensational example of school discipline gone wrong, we chose to tell the stories of a 16-year-old father who was arrested on a gun charge and a kid going through teen court for bringing a pocketknife to school. We portrayed alternatives to the conventional justice system and organizations that try to intervene before kids make life-altering decisions. We asked high school dropouts and felons to tell us intimate stories about divorce, depression or poverty.
We traded a project on an idea for a project that does its best to honestly show real life. It has limitations and by no means comprehensively addresses the issues of race, class and education.
This project does not take sides, nor could it. The title encapsulates one of the most important lessons we have learned: blame cannot be placed on one person, group or policy, and there is no such thing as an easy solution.
This is our best attempt to tell the story of a community with which we cannot easily relate. We immersed ourselves into this community for a semester and learned a lot as young journalists, but also as people trying to understand other people.
From this perspective, we present to you Fault Lines: Race, Class and Education in Durham, North Carolina.