Last Wednesday, Tanasia Futrell sat in a Wake County courtroom clutching a blue binder stuffed with legal documents. The petite teen was dressed in crisp gray slacks and a sweater, her long hair pinned back with barrettes. On two occasions this past semestershortly before and after her 16th birthdayTanasia was cited for fighting at school, leading to criminal charges in juvenile and adult court.

Administrators and security personnel at Sanderson High School in North Raleigh, where Tanasia was enrolled, say the citations were the results of serious crimes. But Tanasia says she was the victim of a prolonged bullying campaign by members of the school’s Step team, and that she was only defending herself.

The courtroom scene offered a real-world glimpse of how schools across the country are addressing bullying. Although not a new issue, it is an escalating problem in North Carolina, where 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults for on-campus affrays.

Not unlike domestic disputes in the adult world, assaults on school campuses are often he-said, she-said affairs. Once charges are filed, many childrenbullies and victims alikeface lifelong criminal records, which affect future college, housing and job aspirations.

“I’m getting more calls about bullying than at any point in the last five years,” says Jason Langberg, an attorney for Durham-based Advocates for Children’s Services, run by Legal Aid of North Carolina. The nonprofit organization offers free counsel to eligible low-income clients.

While many students accept their charges and face the consequences, Tanasia decided to fight back. She mounted a grievance against Sanderson, alleging that in the weeks following her fights, school administrators isolated her in alternative learning classes and neglected her educational needs. The Wake County superintendent’s office is reviewing her claims.

Meanwhile, Tanasia must face her two criminal charges. Last Wednesday, she went to court, accompanied by her mother, uncertain what the judge might say.

When the final school bell rang at Sanderson High on March 24, Tanasia grabbed her books and shuffled out of her math class. It was the sophomore’s favorite subject, helping her earn honors marks earlier in her school career, she says.

But the past year had been difficult for Tanasia, who moved with her family from New York to North Carolina in 2012, in search of better educational opportunities. She struggled to make friends.

When Tanasia walked downstairs she was approached by two girls on the Step team, whom she did not know. “Come to my house. I want to fight you,” Tanasia recalls one of them saying behind her back. When she turned around, she recalls, one girl swung at her with a right hook. Tanasia dodged the fist and struck the girl with a straight punch to the mouth.

A fight ensued, prompting an administratorwho was also the coach of the Step teamto intervene. According to Tanasia, the stocky coach put her in a choke hold around the neck and pinned Tanasia’s arm behind her back. “I couldn’t breathe,” Tanasia recalls. A school resource officer charged Tanasia with simple affray.

The school’s principal, Greg oryDecker, disagrees with Tanasia’s version of events. When Tanasia’s mother, Tamara Young, emailed Decker about the coach’s choke hold, Decker responded: “I was a witness and was there. She was not choked but rather the staff member pulled them apart as they were fighting.” The principal told Young both students would have the same consequences. “I will be fair. I promise,” he wrote.

Decker suspended Tanasia for five days. It’s unclear whether the Step girl was criminally charged or suspended. (Through a school district spokesperson, Decker declined to comment on individual students or respond to Tanasia’s allegations, citing privacy concerns.)

Tanasia spent her 16th birthday at home that week, during which time she heard rumors the Step girls wanted to jump her. During her first week back at school, she and her mother met with administrators, who instructed Tanasia to walk down the middle stairwell after school and avoid the Step girls.

That afternoon, Tanasia sat at a lunch table with administrators, eating pizza, when a group of Step girls walked by with threatening looks. One of the girls, recalls Tanasia, said, “What the fuck you looking at?”

“I was scared because, number one, I didn’t want to get jumped,” Tanasia says now. “And number two, I didn’t want to get cited by the SRO again.”

Five days later, after the final bell rang, Tanasia descended the middle stairway, where she was approached by a Step girl. According to Tanasia, the girl said: “I should just drop you on your head.” The next day, during another meeting, administrators pledged to investigate the situation.

Since the 1999 Columbine shootings, the definition of bullying has broadened, particularly after a string of teen suicides. Recent studies suggest that one in five children is a bullying victim, and legislators have tried to combat the problem. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 27 states signed anti-bullying bills into law in 2011 and 2012, compared to one in 2000. (North Carolina was not among them.) The Obama administration has hosted national conferences on bullying and launched an anti-bullying website.

But while the new legislation is well intended, it has given rise to “zero-tolerance” suspensions and criminal charges, which are merely stop-gap measures that often exacerbate the problem, advocates say.

Zero-tolerance policies entered the national lexicon in the 1990s after the federal government mandated year-long suspensions for students who brought guns to school. Of the 42 states with new or updated bullying laws, 24 rely solely on punitive measures, according to the education department. Fifteen states explicitly permit criminal sanctions for bullying, and more than 50 percent of states outline procedures for reporting bullying to law enforcement.

But some studies suggest that suspensions and criminal charges for fightingwhich include cases of self-defensecan create psychological trauma, truancy and disengagement, placing students in academic peril. “The more severe you make the punishment, the less likely you are to address the problem,” says Deborah Temkin, Bullying Prevention Manager at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

A 2010 University of Albany study examining 213 schools and 20 bullying interventions determined that zero-tolerance policies, along with “avoiding contact between bullies and victims,” were the least-effective strategies. “Staff education and training” was the intervention most lacking in schools.The most effective intervention was “school-wide positive behavior support plans.”

Langberg, of Advocates for Children’s Services, says school districts lack funds for effective anti-bullying resources. “I’ve encountered some students who report being told by school administrators and school resource officers to simply ‘suck it up,’ ‘act like a man’ and ‘fight back,’ ” he says. “Those folks either need better training, or need to be removed from schools.”

Jon Powell, a criminal defense attorney and director of Campbell Law School’s Juvenile Justice Project, has launched a pilot program in seven Wake County schools relying on restorative justice for student conflicts. Through his program, two students who are hostile toward one another are brought together to discuss their feelings and causes of their antagonism. The program, says Powell, mediates about 60 cases a year, about 85 percent of which result in an end to the hostility.

“We want to help them make human connections,” he says. “Once they do that, we see that the conflict begins to go away. If schools can build these types of community relationships, I think we’ll see incidents of bullying go down.”

Since third grade, Tanasia dreamed of being a judge. “I wanted to do something involving right and wrong,” she says. “I wanted to be a judge who has a heart, and who sees reality.”

A week after Tanasia returned from her suspension, a friend showed her a text message from a member of the Step team. “Tell that bitch Tanasia to wait by her 4th period classroom because we’re going to get her for talking crap,” Tanasia recalls the message saying. The incident prompted another meeting with administrators. “We wanted to knowwhere was the mediation?” says Young, Tanasia’s mother.

On May 6, two of the Step girls entered Tanasia’s English classroom. A fight spilled into the hallway. The English teacher, who was pregnant, tried to phone to the main office, but apparently no one answered. The fight lasted several minutes, with punches and hair-pulling.

When Decker arrived, he looked at Tanasia and said, “Oh no, not you again,” Tanasia recalls. She was charged with another affray and suspended for five days. It’s unclear if the other girl was criminally charged or suspended.

While she was home Tanasia heard more threatening rumors. Afraid to return to school, she retained a lawyer, who arranged a meeting with administrators to develop a safety plan. Tanasia was placed into alternative learning classes and offered hallway escorts to protect her.

But the Alternative Learning Center teacher seemed more interested in discipline than classwork, Tanasia says. Once she was denied lunch, and on another occasion she was denied a hallway escort, she says. Frustrated, Tanasia asked to return to normal classes but administrators would not allow her to do so.

“It was the worst time in my life,” she says.

In late May, Tanasia went into Principal Decker’s office in tears, complaining that the ALC teacher had called her “ignorant.” Decker was not there, so Tanasia called her mother, who emailed the principal.

“I am in classrooms,” Decker responded. “You can’t expect me to drop everything to attend to her individual needs each day at a drop of a hat.” In another email Decker reiterated his message: “She does not call the shots around here.”

The following day Tanasia filed her grievance, declaring that Decker was retaliating against her by not allowing her to return to her base classes.

In a response letter to Young, Decker denied the teen’s claims. He pointed out that Tanasia had made academic progress during her time in ALC. He apologized for his “curt” emails.

Tanasia’s school lawyer, Kellie Mannette, is an educational advocate and criminal and juvenile defense attorney. Tanasia’s case, she says, is a typical example of the ineffectiveness of zero-tolerance policies.

“The administrators tried to resolve the issue by isolating her from the bullies,” Mannette says. “but in the process they became the bullies by not allowing her to return to base classes and treating her like she was being punished. They basically forced her to choose between education and safety.”

On June 3, Tanasia , who has been granted a transfer next year to another high school, spoke at a Wake County Board of Education meeting. “These suspensions and criminal charges make me feel like the school does not want me there, like the school does not want me to succeed,” she told the board. “Each suspension, each criminal charge, affects every student in the school, makes each student fearful that a small mistake or misstep could cause them to end up sitting in a courtroom.”

Last Wednesday Tanasia was in such a courtroom for her juvenile hearing, clutching her blue binder. (Her next court date for her adult charge is three weeks from now.)

Tanasia received good news that day. The assistant district attorney announced to District Court Judge Vince Rozier that he was dropping the case. The prosecutor could not find pending charges for the Step-team girl who fought Tanasia, and he wasn’t comfortable with what he perceived as unequal treatment.

Before leaving the courtroom, Tanasia’s attorney told Judge Rozier that Tanasia was now an anti-bullying advocate, and that she wished to be a judge when she grows up.

“It seems like you’re someone who’s learned to do something that many adults struggle to do, and that’s speak up for yourself,” said Rozier. “Keep up the good work. And I look forward to having you on the bench.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Mean girls”