Justice Dept. Weighs in on SC Disturbing Schools Law

In this Monday, Oct, 26, 2015 photo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Senior Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor. (AP Photo)

COLUMBIA, S.C.  – The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is weighing in on a federal lawsuit over South Carolina’s disturbing schools law. That lawsuit stems from an incident last year at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, where a school resource officer forcibly pulled a female student out of her desk and arrested her for disturbing schools when she wouldn’t obey a teacher and an administrator when they told her to get off her cell phone.

The lawsuit says the state’s disturbing schools law is too vague and leads to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

“The criminalization of everyday and ordinary childhood behavior under imprecise statutes can have disastrous and discriminatory consequences,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  “Laws must provide officers with sufficient guidance to distinguish between innocent and delinquent conduct and ensure that all children receive the full protections of our Constitution.  We must remain vigilant to ensure law enforcement practices do not unnecessarily remove children from the classroom and place them in a pipeline to prison.”

The DOJ filed a “Statement of Interest of the United States” in the lawsuit.

Two state lawmakers say they’ll file bills for next year to change the law. Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, filed a bill this year that didn’t make it out of committee, but he thinks it will have a better chance next year. “It would forbid the schools from applying the disturbing schools statute to students who attend the school,” he says, saying the law was meant to protect schools from anyone coming in from the outside and causing a disturbance.

Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, says she’ll also file a bill in the state Senate to change the law.

Rep. Neal says, “It makes it, I think, much more difficult for some students to be successful at completing their education when we, in effect, criminalize what I would call normal childhood behaviors or misbehaviors and make them crimes.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who fired the deputy who was the school resource officer in the Spring Valley case, says, “The law is just too broad and it’s left too much to interpretation. You could be chewing gum in a class and you could get arrested for that ‘cause a teacher could determine that’s disturbing her class.”

He said his department has had an agreement for years with local school districts that SROs will not enforce school discipline, but that agreement wasn’t followed in the Spring Valley case.

But there is opposition to changing the law. The South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association says the definition of disturbing schools should be clarified, but the law allows law enforcement to charge misbehaving students with something relatively minor instead of something more serious, like assault.