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Guilt by disability: The criminalization of North Carolina’s schoolchildren

You may not know this, but North Carolina is one of only two states in the nation which mandates that both sixteen and seventeen year olds be prosecuted as “adults” when they are charged with a crime. We actually allow — and sometimes require — children as young as thirteen to be prosecuted as “adults” in North Carolina. So whenever students are arrested or referred to law enforcement for school-related behaviors, they can easily find themselves facing the machinery of our adult criminal justice system, in which case they cannot even access the rehabilitative and diversionary services available in our juvenile courts.

The result is obvious: when our children spend less time in the classroom and more time in the courts, they are going to be worse off. It decreases their ability to get a good education and increases their chances of future interactions with law enforcement.

This is just one part of the school-to-prison pipeline in action. If you or someone you know has lived this, keep reading. I’ll let you know what you can do right now to help fix it.

The origins of the school-to-prison pipeline are complex. School policies and practices that unequally apply school discipline are often rooted in a long history of systemic racism. However, the school-to-prison pipeline is not anchored by that legacy alone. Most people recognize that poverty also is at its foundation. And, as any good carpenter will tell you, every stool needs at least three legs to stand. The school-to-prison pipeline’s third leg is this: disability.

Having a disability doubles students’ risk of being arrested or referred to law enforcement for school-related behaviors. More broadly, children with disabilities are three times more likely than their peers without disabilities to be involved in the criminal justice system. In fact, over two-thirds of the children involved in the criminal justice system have at least one disability.

At Disability Rights North Carolina, we regularly see students with disabilities get shunted into the school-to-prison pipeline. Sometimes, it is the result of the culture at a particular school that needs to change. Sometimes, it is a matter of inadequate training of school personnel or resource officers. Other times, the arrest and prosecution of children with disabilities for school-related behaviors is a convenient end-run around their civil rights — federal law prohibits schools from simply expelling children when their behaviors are the result of a disability, but having those children incarcerated certainly produces a similar result.

This is why it is crucial that children be treated like children in our criminal justice system.

After students are arrested, charges may likely follow. When these children are charged as adults and then convicted, they end up with an adult criminal record. With that, they become subject to over 1,000 varying legal restrictions on their abilities to obtain housing, employment, education, and government benefits, or even to meaningfully engage in civic life.

Those restrictions are commonly referred to as the “collateral consequences” of having an adult criminal record. They particularly harm students with disabilities. Many of our clients rely on government programs to bridge the wide gaps in our state’s disability and mental health service systems as they transition into adulthood. Access to those programs can be a matter of survival. But our laws prevent these children from accessing what they need. For some, resorting to future criminal activity may be the only way to get by.

This is why it is crucial that children be treated like children in our criminal justice system. It does not solve the underlying issues that lead to students with disabilities being arrested for school-related behaviors. But it will help mitigate the “collateral consequences” of being a child with a disability in a broken system.

And now, how you can help:

The North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice was recently convened by the Honorable Chief Justice Mark Martin of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Its purpose is to serve as “an independent, multidisciplinary commission that will undertake a comprehensive evaluation of our judicial system[,] make recommendations for strengthening our courts[, and] . . . provide a basis for discussion with the General Assembly to help ensure North Carolina’s Judicial Branch meets the needs of our citizens. . .”

The Commission will hold public meetings throughout North Carolina during the month of August, and it wants to hear from you about how we can improve our criminal justice system.

The Commission has already issued a preliminary report recommending that North Carolina stop treating children as adults in the criminal justice system. But that report does not recognize the significant impact our current law has on children with disabilities.

If you, your child, or someone you know was charged as an adult before the age of eighteen for behaviors related to a disability, the Commission needs to know about it. It needs to hear what happens when a child with a disability is prosecuted as an adult in North Carolina.

  • Follow this link to find the dates and locations of the Commission’s meetings, all to be held in August.
  • If you want to speak at one of these meetings, fill out the online Comments Form in advance.
  • If you cannot attend in person but want your story heard, you also can submit written comments to the Commission here.

Policy makers are listening. Our children can’t wait any longer. They all need your story to help make things better. Won’t you tell it?


(Editor’s note: Matthew Herr is married to Alisa Herr, the chief technical officer of EdNC.)

Matthew Herr

Matthew Herr is an attorney and works with Disability Rights North Carolina as a policy analyst.