SC’s Disturbing Schools Law Amended

South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law has been amended after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law was unconstitutionally vague and disproportionately enforced against Black students and students with disabilities.

How did the law change and what does that mean for South Carolina’s students?

What’s Wrong with the Old Disturbing Schools Law?

Under the old version of the disturbing schools law, school resource officers were charging students with crimes for behavior that is, well, typical kid behavior… wait, school resource officers?

That’s a euphemism, right? It’s police officers, with uniforms, badges, guns, and tasers, who are stationed in our children’s schools… to protect our children? No, most of the time, they are there to police our children. Let’s call them school police.

School to Prison Pipeline

For children, schoolyard fights, acting disruptive in class, and speaking out against cruel or abusive behavior by school police is not a crime. It’s what kids do – putting handcuffs on children and dragging them off to jail and a courtroom is a recent development in American culture.

Before we put police officers in our children’s schools, a typical schoolhouse fight or argument with a teacher was punished by in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, or even expulsion in serious cases.

When we put police officers in our children’s schools, they began doing what police officers do – asserting their authority, getting physical with the kids, and arresting them…

According to the ACLU, the disturbing schools statute became the first introduction to the criminal justice system for many children – children who are then more likely to be arrested as adults. And, with disproportionate enforcement and arrests of Black children…

Vagueness Allows Discretion that Allows Racist Enforcement

The disturbing schools statute was vague, making it a crime to “interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college.”

That vagueness allowed for huge discretion in how school police enforced the statute, which, as the ACLU claimed in their lawsuit and the Fourth Circuit agreed, resulted in a disproportionate impact on Black children, disabled children, and children who complain about rough treatment by school police.

For example, two of the children who were plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit were arrested and charged with disturbing schools when they videotaped a school cop viciously assaulting a fellow student…

Sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields, who is white, demanded a female black high school student’s cell phone. When she refused to give it to him, he grabbed the girl, put her in a headlock, flipped her chair over, dragged her out of her chair, slammed her to the ground, and dragged her around the classroom in front of her fellow students.

The student was arrested and charged with disturbing schools. And, two other students who recorded the violence were also charged with disturbing schools.

The Sheriff’s Reaction to the Incident

Even more “disturbing” – Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, even after he fired the deputy, noted that the classroom teacher and a school administrator said they “appreciated Fields’ quick response.” He went on to quote the language of the disturbing schools statute and say that the child was still being prosecuted because she disrupted the classroom.

She is responsible for initiating this action,” the white sheriff said. “…she needs to be held responsible for what she did.” The sheriff went on to explain that deputy Fields was remorseful about what happened, but he was just trying to do his job

This is one example that drives home why the disturbing schools statute was unacceptable and why school police can’t be given broad discretion – it wasn’t an isolated incident, or one “bad apple.” From the top down – the Sheriff himself came out defending the deputy, blamed the victim, and continued the prosecution of the students.

The deputy’s attorney released a statement saying that the deputy’s actions were “justified and lawful,” they were carried out professionally and… he was performing his job duties within the legal threshold.” According to a parent in the video below, the same deputy had previously assaulted another student who is autistic.

How Did SC’s Disturbing Schools Law Change?

The primary change in the disturbing schools statute is that it no longer applies to students – it now applies only to persons who enter the school who do not have a right to be there.

Old Disturbing Schools Statute

The old statute, found at SC Code 16-17-420 (until they get around to replacing it with the new language), said that it was a crime, punishable by 90 days in jail, for “any person wilfully or unnecessarily:”

(a) to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college in this State,

(b) to loiter about such school or college premises or (c) to act in an obnoxious manner thereon; or

(2) for any person to (a) enter upon any such school or college premises or (b) loiter around the premises, except on business, without the permission of the principal or president in charge.

The problem? Any student can be charged with a 90-day misdemeanor for interfering with or disturbing a student or teacher in any school in the state – including elementary, middle, and high schools.

Spitball? Paper airplane? Talking back to the teacher? Questioning authority? All conduct covered by the statute, and punishable by jail. Acting obnoxious? Jail. Talk back to the school police? Violence

SC’s New Disturbing Schools Statute

The new disturbing schools law took effect when the governor signed it on May 17 of this year, and it makes clear that the law applies only to non-students unless a student is threatening bodily harm or threatening to kill someone.

“It is unlawful for a person who is not a student to wilfully interfere with, disrupt, or disturb the normal operations of a school or college in this State by:”

  • Entering school grounds without permission;
  • Loitering on school grounds after they have been told to leave;
  • Fighting with someone on school grounds;
  • Being loud or boisterous on school grounds after they have been asked to stop; or
  • Threatening a student or school employee;

A “person who is not a student” includes anyone who is:

  • Not enrolled at the school;
  • Suspended from the school; or
  • Expelled from the school.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents clients accused of crimes in the Charleston, Dorchester, Georgetown, and Myrtle Beach, SC areas. If you have been arrested or believe you are under investigation, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email for a free consultation today.