Durham students plan to march Saturday to protest police presence in public schools after creating a petition calling on the Board of Education to end its contract with the Sheriff’s Department. 

“We’ve been asking for these changes for a couple of years,” says organizer Jennah Formey, a recent graduate of Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School. “With everything that’s happening with the protests and marches, now is the time to call for action. We’re tired of waiting.”

The March For Black Students will begin in front of the county school’s central offices at 511 Cleveland Street at 6 p.m. Saturday. More than 3,000 students and teachers have signed the petition as of Wednesday.

Formey, 17, plans to attend N.C. Central in the fall. She and fellow march organizers are members of the Youth Justice Project, a student-led initiative to implement change in the county school system.

A central part of their mission is to end the school-to-prison pipeline, organizers say. The presence in area schools of sheriff’s deputies—known as school resource officers, or SROs—increases the number of students who wind up in juvenile courts, Formey points out, and students under the age of 18 have been charged as adults for classroom altercations. 

Cultural and generational issues with SROs also explain why Black male students are disproportionately impacted, Formey says, adding that these officers are predominantly white men, and 65 percent are over the age of 50.

“If you go to school and make a mistake, it could affect the rest of your life,” Formey told the INDY. “The school is part of our community and often we don’t have a voice in what’s going on.”

Another organizer, Aissa Dearing, told the INDY the march “is necessary because SROs disproportionately target students of color and funnel them into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Dearing, 18, wrote the petition letter circulating on social media and will be a junior Howard University this fall. In the letter, she highlights that black students make up 90 percent of school-based complaints that wind up in juvenile court, as reported in 2018 by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice

Black students make up 45 percent of Durham’s public school population.

Dearing said the school funding for SROs would be put to better use by hiring “more school psychologists, more guidance counselors, school nurses, therapists, and substance abuse specialists instead of members of law enforcement to create a safe school climate.”

In the petition letter, Dearing wrote that the school system, “should have more appropriate disciplinary techniques (that include restorative practice centers), that are more equipped to handle any school issues than any intervention from law enforcement.”

“In extreme situations, it is then that schools should ask for peacekeeping intervention,” she wrote.

The students’ effort to persuade the public schools from employing SROs has met formidable, albeit open-minded pushback, most notably from the Mike Lee, chair of the county board of education on Wednesday.

During the board’s work session, Lee noted they’ve fielded continued calls to end the contract with the sheriff’s office. 

Lee said he wanted the student activists to understand, “we hear you and we understand your cause for this action.” As a black man, Lee has endured his own traumatic experiences at the hands of the police and his worries for his three daughters.

Over the past four years, the schools’ have worked to reduce the number of engagements SROs have with students, Lee said. The board is willing to listen and plans are underway for a forum to deepen the conversation and engage the community. 

“In the absence of those solutions it’s hard to imagine a time without SRO,” Lee said.

The Black Student March begins at 6 p.m.

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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