'Disturbing schools' law criticized after South Carolina student's arrest

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 30, 2015 4:08 PM

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A South Carolina law that landed a black high school student in handcuffs after she was thrown across a classroom by a white deputy is too broad and needs to be changed, a sheriff and local leaders said following outrage over the girl's arrest.

The state's "disturbing schools" statute, enacted in 1962, is under scrutiny after a sheriff's deputy in Columbia was seen on video this week slamming to the ground a student caught with her cell phone out during math class. The encounter prompted the officer's firing and a federal civil rights probe.

Critics of the law are troubled that it was used to arrest the 16-year-old girl subjected to the deputy's rough treatment and an 18-year-old classmate who protested his actions.

"A child simply looking at a phone is enough to bring in law enforcement," said Democratic state Representative Joe Neal. "Any infraction perceived by any authority in the school can be covered."

Disturbing school is a misdemeanor charge that can result in a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail in South Carolina. The statute makes it unlawful for anyone "to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school" or "to act in an obnoxious manner."

During the 2013-2014 school year, 1,189 students were referred to the state's Department of Juvenile Justice for the offense. That figure does not include teens charged as adults.

It was the third most frequent offense resulting in referrals, after simple assault and shoplifting, according to the department's annual statistics.

Eighteen other states have similar statutes, but South Carolina appears to have a more sweeping definition of what constitutes a disturbance, said Josh Gupta-Kagan, an assistant professor of juvenile justice at University of South Carolina School of Law.

"It is a rare bird of a law," he said.

Criticizing the statute as vague and subjective, Neal said he wants to amend it to forbid activities that are not considered criminal under other statutes from being classified as disturbing school.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who fired school resource officer Ben Fields over the classroom arrest, told reporters the teen-aged girls also were wrong and should be held accountable for their actions.

However, Lott echoed concerns raised by the local Black Parents Association about the decision by a teacher and administrator to involve the deputy in the handling of the disruptive student.

Federal data show that black students are more than twice as likely to be arrested in school as white students.

The sheriff said the focus should be on keeping pupils in school rather than arresting them.

"I hope that some of our elected officials look at this and say ‘hey, maybe we need to step back and change this law a little bit'," Lott said in an interview on CNN.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by James Dalgleish)