By Elizabeth Thompson

In March 2020, schools shut down for two weeks to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Nearly a year later, when schools started to head back to consistent, in-person instruction, more than 11,000 North Carolinians had died of COVID-19.

Students’ lives changed. They were faced with death and disease in the news and in their families. They didn’t have the same access to their social networks at school. They lived in fear of a constant, invisible enemy, said Marcus Pollard, Justice Systems Reform Council for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Coming back to the school environment could be jarring for some children, Pollard said. He said it’s possible that kids returning to school could act out for a number of reasons, from anxiety related to COVID, frustration about being left behind in school work or the loss of a family member. He argued they should be met with compassion and counseling.

But he worries they’ll get handcuffs instead.

When cries for help become crimes

Having school resource officers, law enforcement officials who work in schools, is linked to schools criminalizing misbehavior — getting into fights, yelling at a teacher — instead of keeping punishment inside the building. For many children, that misbehavior could be a call for help, but instead it escalates into a crime.

Even before the pandemic, children funneled into the juvenile justice system were disproportionately Black, from low-income families or had learning disabilities. North Carolina is one of 48 states that uses vague language in discipline policies, a study by Child Trends found. 

To Pollard and other advocates, it was a small victory that fewer children were funneled into the juvenile justice system by schools during the pandemic, simply because they were not on school grounds. 

From July 2019 to July 2020, school-based juvenile justice complaints sank from an average of 40 to 45 percent to around 30 percent when schools went online after March of 2020, according to analysis of data from the North Carolina Judicial Branch by NC Health News.

School-based complaints continued to plummet from July 2020 to July 2021, to just 7 percent of total complaints.

Advocates say the stark difference between school-based complaints before, during and after the pandemic shows how schools escalate the consequences of poor behavior in schools. Too often, schools have handled disciplinary measures by sending some students into the juvenile justice system, creating a school-to-prison pipeline.

Advocates don’t expect those changes to remain as children have gone back to school, but the changes represent a possibility of a world where disciplinary problems at school don’t push a child into a carceral system. 

What the numbers also don’t show is how deeply the pandemic has impacted children — especially the most vulnerable.

The numbers for juvenile justice-related complaints from the 2021-2022 school year haven’t been released yet, but Pollard said that he has heard about high rates of referrals to partner groups that he works with.

“Everyone in the court that I talked to, everybody suffered,” said Barbara Fedders, who directs the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) also expects numbers to tick up, said Juvenile Justice Communications Officer Jerry Higgins.

“Historically, schools are a source of between 40-45 percent of annual total juvenile complaints,” Higgins said in an email. “With students returning to school for the 2021-22 school year, Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention expects the numbers to be higher than the 2020-21 school year.”

Falling through the cracks

For a small group of children on the autism spectrum or with other disabilities, online school was better, said Virginia Fogg, supervising attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina. Children who were bullied were protected from in-person taunts, and children with anxiety were able to feel safer at home.

The pandemic was “terrible for almost all of our clients because their individual needs just cannot be met,” Fogg said; however, she said she couldn’t directly tie an increase in school-based complaints to the return to school.

“We definitely saw that the transition back into the school building was difficult for many kids with disabilities,” Fogg said.

Fedders receives the school records for children she and her students represent at the Youth Justice Clinic.

“Pre-pandemic, it was bad enough and then during the pandemic, it got worse,” she said. 

“If you got As, you went down,” Fedders said. “If you were struggling, you failed. If you were failing, you quit.”

She fears that the children who need help the most may not even slip through the juvenile justice system. If they’re able to, they might just quit.

When dropping out seems like the only option

Online learning was more than a team effort for some parents, it was a second job. If a child’s parents were not able to stay home to assist with their education, it was incredibly difficult to muddle through.

“We do still see a disproportionate number of students with disabilities dropping out,” Fogg said, “and we have definitely heard anecdotally from parents about kids just not going back.”

Carolina Demography found that North Carolina public school attendance dropped by 4.4 percent during fall 2020, a loss of almost 63,000 students. Some of those losses could be due to children being homeschooled or going to charter schools. Some children may have dropped out of school altogether.

One child who Fogg represented withdrew from school altogether during online schooling because his parents were afraid of putting themselves at risk of criminal truancy charges, Fogg said. 

Even before the pandemic, Disability Rights North Carolina advocated against exclusionary disciplinary measures, such as when kids are suspended from school, Fogg said. It increases the likelihood that kids displaying behavioral issues in school will move their trouble-making activities out of school, to places where there’s even less leeway.

From July 2020 to 2021, juvenile justice complaints not based in schools skyrocketed, as school-based complaints plummeted, making up more than 90 percent of overall complaints.

“It's really easy for those children to fall between the cracks or off the radar,” Fogg said. “It's very easy for a child to stay out of school for a very long period of time without the school being held accountable.”

For DPS officials like Higgins, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of schools in children's lives.

“From education, to mental and physical health, to social development schools play an integral part in building successful children into adults,” Higgins said, “so we should be doing everything we can do to keep kids in school and not using exclusionary discipline to keep them out.”  

Dropping out of high school has its own role to play in that school-to-prison-pipeline, and it could have consequences later down the line. 

A report from the North Carolina Department of Commerce found the incarceration rate for  North Carolina high schoolers with disabilities who dropped out of high school was 17.5 percent.  In contrast, only 3 percent of people with disabilities who graduated ended up behind bars.

“We know from other research that individuals with disabilities and particularly mental, emotional, learning disabilities are disproportionately represented in the adult correctional system,” said the report’s author, senior economist Andrew Berger-Gross. 

“What this research shows is that it has roots in events that happened earlier in their lives.”

An uphill battle

It’s not completely clear how exactly the juvenile justice system will be impacted by the pandemic, said Eric Zogry, state juvenile defender at the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender.

It’s possible that children who had academic challenges before remote learning will return to school and have even more difficulties. Those frustrations may make them more likely to act out and get in trouble.

Still, “it's hard to tell,” Zogry said.

Children are resilient, Fedders said, but they also have had to be. She hopes that the pandemic has shed a light on the systemic problems that cause marginalized children to suffer the most because often, by the time they reach her, it’s too late.

The “When kids’ cries for help become crimes” series is part of a data fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

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Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate...