The Vague Law Allowed Law Enforcement Officers to Act as Disciplinarians
For Immediate Release
May 18, 2018

Contact: Shaundra Scott, Executive Director,, 843-720-1423, ext. 202
COLUMBIA, SC - Yesterday South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster made an important step forward in the decades-long effort to curb the criminalization of student behavior.  He signed into law important amendments to the Disturbing Schools statute (16-17-420). Originally this statute was passed to deter outside agitators from disturbing schools and colleges. Over the years, however, the vague language of the statute and the increased presence of law enforcement in schools had combined to result in students being arrested for minor infractions at school.  Childish mistakes that had been discipline problems in the past were now treated as crimes. Even First Amendment protected student expression fell subject to the law.
The application of this statute led to children as young as kindergarten-age to be handcuffed and charged. And a disproportionate number of minority students and students with disabilities were charged under this statute. In SC this statute was a prime feeder into what has been called the School-to-Prison pipeline.  Most disconcerting is that the behavior for which students would be arrested would rarely be considered a crime if it had happened on the street. Childish errors and adolescent acting out became crimes rather than teaching moments.
In the fall of 2016, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Disturbing Schools statute after a School Resource Officer (“SRO”) at Spring Valley High School near Columbia was caught on camera physically removing a student from her desk after her teacher reported that she had refused to put away her cell phone. Another student spoke out about the unnecessary use of force as the officer dragged her classmate across the floor. Both girls were arrested and charged under the Disturbing Schools statute.  
For years, attempts to modify Disturbing Schools lagged in both chambers. The ACLU constitutional challenge appears to have been the last straw needed to encourage the legislators to take action to protect our children.  That lawsuit had been dismissed in the spring of 2017.  In the spring of 2018, the 4thCircuit Court of Appeals reinstated the case. Shortly thereafter a hearing was finally scheduled in the House and the bill revising the statute had new life. Late in the legislative session, amendments were adopted by both chambers and sent to Gov. McMaster’s desk.  He signed the bill yesterday.  The amendments restore the original intent of the law. Once again it applies only to individuals outside the school who engage in disruptive activity to the learning environment, not to children who are in the school and who might be exhibiting behavior expected of children of a certain age.  
While the amended statute falls short of excluding application to all children and the parents of students, this is a major victory which will remove a link in the School to Prison pipeline. We applaud the legislators and Gov. McMaster for taking these important steps to recognize and preserve the constitutional rights of children in school. 

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