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North Carolina Latina Teen Jailed Because Foster System Was Unable to Find a Place for Her, Civil Rights Groups Accuse Wake County School District of Targeting Minorities

First Posted: Mar 31, 2014 05:02 PM EDT
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Southeast Raleigh High School senior Selina Garcia is only 17 years old, yet she spent three weeks in an adult jail because the foster care system could not find a place for her. Last Thursday, Garcia was freed after she pled guilty to misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and battery that stemmed from an incident on a school bus.  

The treatment of Garcia dredges a larger question about the handling of foster children and the role of school police. The fact that no one from the Wake Country, N.C. social service department retrieved her after her arrest on March 7 by a school resource office after the alleged altercation on the school exposes a greater issue when it comes to age, legality and treatment of minors.

Both an adult and a minor in the eyes of North Carolina, once 16 years old, the state automatically places youth into the adult legal system if they are charged with crimes, even when dealing with misdemeanors.

At 17 years old, however, Garcia is still a minor under that state's social services system, and as a foster child, Garcia could only be released from jail into the custody of the county, which is her legal guardian.

The case of Selina Garcia typifies the failures of the foster care systems and the adults who are charged to care for these children. Vulnerable, due to the fact that she is without parents, it's the county and foster care system that's supposed to ensure that Garcia isn't thrust into dangerous, unsavory situations with bigger, older offenders -- particularly as Garcia has struggled with abuse since she was a small child -- simply because they couldn't find a bed to offer her.

"You cannot use jail as a boarding house for foster children," said Jennifer Story, who has been representing Garcia in efforts to obtain individual learning services for the teen from the Wake County School District.

Story also stated that Garcia's arrest by school police was "a discretionary act on the part of an officer," and it illustrated the consequences of syphoning students into a legal system for altercations that may have been better handled by the school's administration.

Spokeswoman Sarah Williamson-Baker claimed that the county could not offer information about individual clients, but in a public statement, she said, "When a child in our custody is arrested, we assess the individual circumstances and whether it is safe and appropriate for the child to return to the previous placement. If not, we attempt to secure a new placement and supporting services that meet the child's needs for treatment and are consistent with the safety of the child and the public."

Stella Shelton, interim chief of communications for the Wake County School District, also stated that she couldn't discuss the matter due to privacy restrictions, but stated, "I'd have to leave that to the school resource officer's judgment," Shelton said, commenting on the appropriateness of Garcia's arrest after the incident on the school bus.

Wake County School District, and a number of law-enforcement agencies that supply campus officers, have a civil rights complaint pinned against them, filed in January by the Legal Aid of North Caroline and other groups, due to the district's disproportionate suspensions of ethnic minority students for minor behavior and for referring said students to law enforcement, according to the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice's Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division.

"In Wake County, black students make up 25 percent of the student body, and over 60 percent of suspensions," said Cary High School student Qasima Wideman.

Afro-Latina Garcia underwent years of abuse before being placed with a family member in North Carolina. A number of years later, Garcia entered the Wake County foster-care system, and has been transferred from group homes to individual homes and three different high schools in less than two years, according to Story. At these different schools, Garcia has often had issues with bullying, and her current school fails to provide counseling that she previously received as a foster child because she was placed in an individual home that's too far, and no transportation can be provided.  

The altercation on the school bus was not the first, according to Story. Due to bullying by others at school, she'd actually had an incident on March 7 with a different girl on a school bus. In regards to the incident that led to the Garcia's arrest, the Raleigh Police Department -- which places school resource officers at schools -- said that Garcia struck the other girl several times, but the girl did not suffer serious injuries.

The resource officer made a judgment call to arrest Garcia for simple battery, according to Story. Story then insisted that officer let her pick Garcia up following the bus incident, but the officer maintained that Garcia "needed to learn a lesson."

The teen's infraction was originally label a "level two" out of five levels of misbehavior, with five being the most serious on the scale. The level-two punishment is a maximum of five days suspension; however, Garcia had to undergo jail time.

"All she has been doing in jail is writing," Story said. "When I go to see her in jail she hands me wads of paper." Story said, and then mentioned that shelters have become available where Garcia could be placed instead of keeping her in jail.

The criminalization of children for schoolyard behavior and other misbehavior that should have been handled by in-school counseling sessions is a real issue in Wake County.

Students and parents have jointed with students from other states to discuss disciplinary policies, justice, and education. Many of Garcia's peers rallied behind her in wake of this injustice, throwing their support behind her at her hearing, proclaiming that teens don't belong in jail.

Garcia's aunt, Melissa Garcia, said that she learned of her niece's situation just before the hearing from media reports. She stated to reporters that she wished she had been notified by the county earlier so that she could have helped.

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