An Upstate prosecutor and law enforcement representative Thursday defended a controversial law that criminalizes students’ bad behavior, saying the law is necessary and, sometimes, allows students to avoid more serious charges.
“There (are) kids that will not obey the rules,” Barry Barnette, solicitor for Cherokee and Spartanburg counties and a former teacher, told an S.C. House panel.
Lawmakers heard testimony for and against a House bill to put an end to students being arrested for disturbing schools. Critics say the existing law defines disturbing schools too broadly, allowing students to be charged as criminals for misbehavior that teachers and administrators should deal with instead.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, said she wants to return the law to its original intent — protecting students from outside agitators.
The legislation, which received its first hearing Thursday, is a response to a Richland County Sheriff’s deputy forcibly removing a Spring Valley High School student from her desk after she refused to put away her phone. The student and another, who videoed the incident, were charged with disturbing schools. Those charges are pending. The deputy was fired and a federal investigation is underway.
The Spring Valley incident sparked an outcry from Richland 2 parents who say black students are punished more harshly than white students. The State newspaper found evidence to support that concern. Black students in Richland 2 and statewide are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.
The bill’s supporters said McLeod’s legislation also is needed to slow the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“If it's not a crime in the street, it shouldn't be a crime in the classroom,” said James Flowers, a former SLED agent who is running for Richland County sheriff.
Aleksandra Chauhan, a Richland County assistant public defender, said she has seen students “charged with disturbing schools for things like throwing a soda can in the cafeteria when they're upset.”
That kind of behavior, Chauhan said, should not be considered criminal. She also encouraged lawmakers to consider the lasting impacts of youth entering the criminal justice system. “Once they are in the criminal system, they stay in the criminal system.”
Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination in Greenville also spoke in support of McLeod’s proposal, saying police officers should not have the right to arrest students for whatever offenses they deem criminal.
‘Burden ... is on Mama and Daddy’
While agreeing its definition of disturbing schools should be clarified, an S.C. Sheriffs’ Association representative defended the law, saying it sometimes saves students from more serious charges.
Sometimes, an officer will use the law “as his means for arrest because it is a lesser offense than, say, disorderly conduct or assault and battery (when fighting occurs),” association executive director Jarrod Bruder wrote in an email to lawmakers. “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.”
Solicitor Barnette said that when he taught two and three decades ago, teachers were not equipped to deal with some of the behavior problems they now encounter.
“We haven’t had discipline in our schools,” he said, adding the need for law enforcement in schools grew out of that absence.
Barnette agreed the law could define disturbing schools more specifically, adding the deputy involved in the Spring Valley incident used poor discretion. But the law should continue to apply to students, he added. “We’ve got to have something there for law enforcement to do something with students.”
One lawmaker said the burden for correcting student behavior must start with parents.
“What about the burden that parents or guardians have?” asked state Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester. “Sometimes, we have to quit blaming the schools. The burden, in my opinion, and at my house, is on Mama and Daddy.”
Bill unlikely to pass this year
The House panel did not vote on the bill Thursday, allowing it time to address some of the concerns raised in the hearing.
The panel will hold another hearing Thursday, said chairman David Weeks, D-Sumter.
That delay makes it unlikely the bill will become law this year. To do that, it would have to make it through committee and pass the House before a May 1 deadline. After May 1, it would require a two-thirds vote for the proposal to be considered in the state Senate.
Disturbing S.C. schools
A House bill would exempt students from being charged with disturbing schools, unless they are expelled or suspended and return to school and cause trouble.
The bill: Also would increase penalties for breaking the law, raising the maximum fines to $2,000 from $1,000 and maximum jail time to a year from 90 days.
Where it stands: Except for Thursday’s hearing, legislative efforts to change the disturbing-schools law have gone nowhere. With the legislative session already winding to a close, the proposal is unlikely to pass this year. However, it could be reintroduced next year.