On Thursday, March 27, a 17-year-old student from Southeast Raleigh High School named Selina Garcia was released from prison after being held there for 21 days—long after a judge ordered her release—because the state foster care system couldn’t find a place for her. Why was a 17-year-old girl being held in an adult prison for three weeks in the first place? She got into a fight on a school bus. What was so special about this fight that landed Selina in prison? Well, nothing. There were absolutely no reported injuries or damage. The official charges Selina pleaded guilty to were “disorderly conduct and communicating threats.”
At first, Selina received a five day suspension, which is considered a standard administrative response to misconduct of this nature. After this suspension, the School Resource Officer determined that a five-day suspension was not enough punishment, and even though she posed absolutely no threat to the safety of any student at the school, Selina was arrested. By making the choice to criminalize Selina’s actions, this officer stripped a 17-year-old girl of resources, a somewhat stable environment and agency. Rather than trying to target the root causes of why a 17-year-old Latina in foster care might have difficulty managing her anger, this officer made the choice to even further imprison her in the systems that disproportionately discriminate against her and strip her of opportunities and resources. In a letter Selina wrote from prison to NC HEAT, a youth advocacy and organizing group, she stated:
“In here I am no longer Selina Marie Garcia. I am #34! Not a human being but a caged animal with the number.” Being in foster care and adult prison presents its own compounding challenges. She is both an adult and a minor. By North Carolina’s legal system, she is an adult, automatically put into the adult legal system if she is charged with any sort of crime. But according to the Department of Social Services, she is still a minor and can only be released into the custody of the county. She was caught in, among, under, between the systems that simultaneously legally define her as a human, yet dehumanize her as a poor, black, Latina youth. Because she was arrested, there was no one from North Carolina Social Services who had to come get her. So she sat there, waiting in criminal custody indefinitely, falling desperately behind in school, at risk of losing Department of Social Services scholarship money for attending community or technical college once she graduated.
Wake County’s response to a girl who was abused when she was younger and was cut off from foster care counseling was not to provide in-school counseling or help—it was instead to hire a security officer who would place a young girl in prison with adult criminal offenders.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially to all black and brown youth who are disproportionately criminalized by school police officers daily. In January of this year, a federal civil rights complaint against Wake County Schools was filed in North Carolina claiming “school police have ‘violently tackled’ students, pepper-sprayed teens and handcuffed, interrogated and arrested students on baseless accusations without informing them of their rights or calling parents.” Jahbriel Morris, a black student at Enloe High School, was not arrested, but was bruised and scraped in multiple areas over his body when he was grabbed by a police officer and shoved to the ground.
Most of the abusive behavior that was recounted involved black students. The federal complaint further asserts “the unregulated use of law enforcement officers to address school discipline matters has resulted in thousands of Wake County Public School System students, predominantly African-American students and students with disabilities, being deprived of their educational rights and sent to juvenile or criminal court as a result of minor misbehavior that occurs at school.”
Although community members and members of NC HEAT gathered on Thursday to successfully demand the release of Selina Garcia from prison, Selina is not free. She will not be free until Wake County, the state of North Carolina and the country revolutionize the public school system and create an environment where students’ public safety is protected and best interests are promoted. She will be free when we put our resources into adequately funding all public schools and provide social services to abused, at-risk youth. She will be free when she can walk onto her campus and feel like her existence and identity are validated.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Monday. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.