Bill to change SC Disturbing Schools law running out of time

By Robert Kittle

(COLUMBIA, SC)

A bill to change South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law, to make it less likely students would be charged with it for discipline issues, is running out of time at the Statehouse after a House subcommittee delayed a vote on the bill Thursday.

Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, introduced the bill after an incident last fall at Spring Valley High School in Columbia. A teacher asked a female student to leave class for having her phone out, but she refused. The school resource officer then came and told her to leave. When she again refused, he pulled her out of her desk and dragged her across the room. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott fired the deputy after seeing cell phone video of the incident.

Rep. McLeod told lawmakers the disturbing schools law goes back to 1919 and originally applied only to schools and colleges attended by women. She said it was intended to protect students, teachers, and administrators from outside agitators. She said she doesn’t know how or when it morphed into a law used to arrest students for discipline issues that used to be handled in schools, but the bill aims to move the law back to its original intent.

Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina, told lawmakers, “We think that matters of school discipline should remain school discipline matters and not matters that involve law enforcement.”

Speakers in favor of the bill said it would help stop the “school to prison pipeline,” where students get arrested for discipline issues, which starts a spiral that ends with them in adult prison later on. James Flowers, a former SLED agent who’s now running for Richland County Sheriff, told lawmakers, “A first-time arrest of a high school student nearly doubles the odds of that student dropping out of school, while an appearance in court nearly quadruples those odds.”

USC law professor Derek Black says using the disturbing schools law to handle minor issues can cause lifelong problems for the students. “This is not to say that misbehavior should go unpunished or unaddressed, but rather law enforcement and punitive approaches do not address that child in a way that helps the misbehaving child or the innocent bystanders around them,” he told the House subcommittee.

But lawmakers also heard support for the current law and opposition to changing it. Barry Barnette, solicitor for Cherokee and Spartanburg counties, told lawmakers that he knows what teachers go through because he taught in Greenville in the 1980s. “I think we need to give positive reinforcement to the kids. That’s the way I taught when I was a teacher there. However, there’s kids who will not obey the rules, and you’ve got to have discretion for that officer,” he said.

The SC Sheriffs’ Association gave the subcommittee a written statement, saying sometimes a student being charged under the disturbing schools law is better for the student. “The officer uses the disturbing schools statute as his means for arrest because it is a lesser offense than, say, disorderly conduct or assault and battery when fighting occurs. This often allows the student’s charge to be handled in Family Court rather than resulting in a permanent charge on the student’s criminal record,” the statement says.

Because of concerns about the penalties in the bill and a desire to work on it, the subcommittee delayed a vote on it. However, the May 1 crossover deadline is approaching, when a bill has to have passed in either the full House or Senate to have a realistic chance of passing this year. Since the bill is still in subcommittee and hasn’t passed either body, its chances of making the deadline are slim.

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