June Griffin does a lot of hoping and praying.
Most of the time, she's hoping her phone doesn't ring. Too often, the caller will be from one of the two middle schools her grandsons attend. The calls usually mean she has to get one or the other from school — or the Cumberland County Detention Center.
When she's praying, it's for the future of the boys: 16-year-old Ja'Mese Herring, and his younger brother, 15-year-old Jai'Ree.
On a Monday in April, the 56-year-old grandmother sat at her kitchen table, thinking about a juvenile court hearing for Ja'Mese the next afternoon. Griffin wouldn't discuss the case, other than to say it involved a gun.
It was one of the last juvenile hearings Ja'mese would have before he becomes an adult in the eyes of North Carolina's justice system at age 16.
Griffin and her grandchildren live in the Old Wilmington Road neighborhood, the city's poorest community.
A study published last year in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence —”From the School Yard to the Squad Car: School Discipline, Truancy, and Arrest” — found that the school suspensions both boys have faced more than doubles the likelihood that a child will wind up in juvenile detention.
Other studies show that children who have been to juvenile detention are far more likely to commit additional crimes.
To those familiar with the criminal justice system, it appears that Ja'Mese already has found himself squarely in what is known variously as the cradle-to-prison or school-to-prison pipeline, a course that — by either name — runs directly through neighborhoods of concentrated, multigenerational poverty.
Ja'Mese was first suspended in sixth grade when he got into a fight with a student at Douglas Byrd Middle School, Griffin said. After that, the suspensions snowballed.
“It had got to the point where I was just really scared to answer my phone,” Griffin said. “I didn't know if somebody was calling to tell me Ja'Mese had got hurt, or that Ja'Mese was dead or every time I turned around the schools was calling me: 'Ja'mese got suspended, you need to come and get him,' blah, blah, blah, back and forth.”
Ja'Mese is representative of a disproportionate number of black boys who are suspended in Cumberland County schools and across the state, advocates say.
An analysis of Cumberland County suspensions in the 2013-14 school year shows that:
- Black children were suspended from school four times more often than white children;
- Black youths were sent to juvenile detention three times more often than whites, and to prison more than two times more often.
School officials say they are aware of the racial disparities. Frank Till Jr., superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, is looking at ways to determine the reasons behind the numbers.
That investigation, he said, would begin with breaking down the district one layer at a time.
“We've got to dig deeper,” Till said. “We've got to find the causal relationship to reduce those.
“They are down. They're down from where they were a year ago, but they're still too high, which means we still haven't found the causal relationship that's generated that many.”
At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, Till initiated a pilot program in the Douglas Byrd attendance area in which a newly hired social worker began coordinating with police, courts, probation officers and social services workers to ensure that students are in school.
….Griffin said her boys, like her neighborhood, have been labeled because of past incidents.
She worries that her grandchildren, and young people in her community, are becoming the products of a system that expects them to fail.
Sometimes, she said, she tries to figure out if it's the neighborhood, or the lack of a male role model when they were young, that led to the behavior issues.
Griffin says she is a Christian who has tried to bring her grandchildren up right. They go to church regularly, she said, and live in a nice home. Griffin bought a Habitat for Humanity house off Old Wilmington Road three years ago.
But she said her grandsons have had behavioral issues since elementary school, and the incidents multiplied in middle school.
“Once you get suspended they target you,” Griffin said. “You become a target. You're constantly being watched.”
Some of the suspensions, she said, have been trivial.
Jai'Ree was once suspended for balling up a piece of paper and throwing it across the room.
Griffin makes no bones about it. Her boys aren't angels, she said.
Brandy Bynum, a board member for Youth Justice North Carolina, said statewide statistics have shown students often are suspended for minor incidents — a trend that makes more youths likely to wind up in the criminal justice system because of the state law that treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
North Carolina and New York are the only two states in the country that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in their criminal justice systems.
Bynum said students' behavioral issues often compound their distrust in the education system.
“What we're seeing is there have been a significant number of short-term suspensions — these are three to five days — and there are repeat, multiple suspensions, which led to them either being pushed out or them dropping out,” Bynum said. “They are not directly connected to an educational system that they feel welcome in and is appropriate to meet whatever their academic needs are.”
Jason Langberg, a Raleigh-based lawyer with Advocates for Children's Services, said Cumberland County students are more likely to receive school-based delinquency complaints than the average North Carolina student.
According to 2013 statistics, 53.1 percent of delinquency complaints in Cumberland County were filed at school. The statewide average was 44.9 percent.
“I don't think it's a coincidence that the enormous racial disparities in school-based delinquency complaints often mirror the enormous academic achievement gaps,” Langberg said. “If a kid isn't being successful in school, you're less engaged, you have less incentive to behave and more incentive to get out of there if you're failing anyway — and one way that happens is misbehavior.”
Cumberland County schools have seen a sharp decline in delinquency referrals and suspensions for students, but the racial disparities remain.
According to statistics from the North Carolina Department of Safety's Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, juvenile complaints in Cumberland County dropped from 2,067 in 2010-2011 to 1,595 in 2012-2013.
Still, figures show that schools with a similar number of student suspensions differ significantly according to racial breakdowns.
….”We can track the number of kids that go from school into the juvenile system because of the Department of Juvenile Justice,” said Barbara Fedders, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There's no comparable data collection for high schoolers that go into the criminal system. So we have no idea how big of a problem that is, but I believe it's a big problem.”
Fedders said some studies have shown a strong correlation between standardized testing and poverty.
“So what we're testing is really the parents' income more than anything,” Fedders said. “I think some people say school-to-prison pipeline and more and more people … are using the term cradle-to-prison pipeline.
“If you grow up in poverty, when you start kindergarten you're already way behind.”
….Griffin lives in the poorest area of town, where she said kids often fight over the little that they have. A while back, Jai'Ree was robbed on the way home from school.
“We had an incident — some 18-year-old boy just took Jai'Ree's money from him. So, my fiance gave him the aluminum bat and told him to go hit him — 'What is he going to do, go tell the police that you hit him?'” Griffin said. “It's like you had all rights to hit him because he took your money, but Jai'ree is not a fighter. You have to really, really push him to go fight.”
She said Jai'Ree's behavior seems to be improving, while Ja'Mese continues to struggle. This spring, after his court hearing in April, Ja'Mese was placed in a group home for troubled youths.
In June, he was disrespectful to a teacher at a summer arts program and was sent back to the group home for the day as punishment. He was due back in court last week on the gun charge.
During the 2014-15 school year, Jai'Ree was placed in a self-contained special education class at Luther “Nick” Jeralds Middle School. Griffin said he excelled in the class, raising his grades from D's to A's and B's. She said he made the honor roll.
But at the beginning of this school year, Griffin said, Jai'Ree returned to Douglas Byrd Middle School and quickly got suspended. He is now attending Pauline Jones Middle School, an alternative school for troubled youths.
Nathan Hardin is a 2014-2015 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story published last week in The Fayetteville Observer, part of a series exploring the links between poverty and criminal justice in North Carolina. For the full story, and links to other parts of the series, please click HERE. Staff writer Greg Barnes contributed to this report. Readers comments are welcome.