Back when I was in elementary and middle school, disturbing class was a serious offense. If you weren’t careful, you could end up staying after school for detention, or if you were really disruptive, being sent to the principal’s office. Back in those days, teachers had a practice of making you “walk” at recess depending on the gravity of your offense. Based on the level of infraction, a student might have to walk several laps around a concrete courtyard before being allowed to play. Things have certainly changed since those days.
Charleston County leads the state in criminal charges for disturbing school, a charge almost exclusively brought against Charleston County students. Schools now assign resource officers who are empowered by state law to arrest students for any infractions which they deem violative of the law. Hundreds of South Carolina students are arrested every year for behavior which, in past years, led to suspensions or stern warnings from a principal. Charleston County, according to the Post and Courier, sent more disturbing school cases to the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice than Greenville and Richland Counties combined. Statistics also show that charges of this type were highly disproportionate by race. While African-American students only comprise 40 percent of Charleston County school district students, they accounted for 85 percent of students charged with disturbing schools between August 2014 and December 2015.
Lawmakers from both parties have expressed an interest in stopping this disturbing trend, and have sponsored new legislation called the “Stop the School House to Jail House Pipeline Act” (S.C. House Bill 3055). This bill passed the Criminal Law Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee last month, and was supported by a bipartisan committee comprised of 10 members from the South Carolina Senate and House. This group was tasked with making recommendations to the General Assembly on ways to divert more juveniles away from the criminal system. Not only is this good legislation, but it is legislation that should pass overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. South Carolina is not well-served by criminalizing student misbehavior. As utilized now, the disturbing schools statute is being used as a crutch to push off routine disciplinary cases on officers, cases which should be handled through more traditional school disciplinary processes.
A recent case I handled through my law practice illustrates how ludicrous the enforcement of these charges can become. In my case, two elementary school students were playing keep-away from another student with a bag of potato chips belonging to that student. This was callous behavior, and certainly insensitive, but certainly not conduct warranting criminal charges. The school, in its wisdom, saw fit to charge both students with petit larceny, meaning that both students were arrested, suspended from school, and their case was sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice. The value of the bag of potato chips was 50 cents. Such a story would be difficult to fathom, had I not seen the indictment myself, and spoken to the despondent family members about the charges. It did not matter that the chips were eventually returned to the victim. Both offending students required legal assistance and a family court appearance before the charges could be resolved.
The disturbing schools statute was enacted almost 100 years ago to protect all-girl schools from intruders. A misdemeanor, the law carries penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and a 90-day jail sentence. For some reason, the law has been used within the past 15 years to address routine misbehaviors in the public schools. This practice has to stop.
A recent study cited by the University of Texas has shown that once adolescents are placed within the criminal justice system, it makes it increasingly difficult for them to ever get out of it. They become caught up in a cycle and find it increasingly difficult to become productive members of society with the added baggage of a criminal record. While some of the responsibility for disciplining these students obviously falls on parents, Charleston County’s overreliance on this statute is highly problematic. Law enforcement agencies across the state have opposed changes in this legislation since they want to keep the expanded powers of arrest which the statute now allows. Proper credit should be given to the House Subcommittee for clearing this bill, and to the General Assembly for taking up this important issue. Hopefully the legislation will continue its path towards soon becoming law, and students will be spared unnecessary prosecution as a result.