Letters to the Editor

Should we send students to jail for sassing the teacher?

South Carolina’s disturbing schools law means students can be handcuffed and hauled off to jail for talking back to a teacher, if the teacher considers that “obnoxious.”
South Carolina’s disturbing schools law means students can be handcuffed and hauled off to jail for talking back to a teacher, if the teacher considers that “obnoxious.” AP

IN WORLD history class, a student applies lipstick while her teacher explains the Crusades. In freshman English class, a boy stands silently beside his desk, listening but refusing to sit down. When the French teacher asks a student to conjugate etra, she gives a sarcastic reply. In P.E., a student engages in “fake burping.”

Typical obnoxious adolescent behavior?

Pretty much.

But in South Carolina, all of those students could be handcuffed and hauled away, tried and sent to jail for up to 90 days. Disturbing schools, it’s called, and it means acting “in an obnoxious manner.” It can land a student behind bars for 90 days. With a criminal record.

Let’s pretend we never heard of that Spring Valley math class, because we’ve become so emotionally invested in our dug-in positions that we can’t have a rational conversation about the bigger questions that case raised.

Instead, let’s ask ourselves if it makes sense to make it a crime — not something that gets you suspended, but a crime — to sass the teacher. To pass notes in class. To get in a yelling match in the lunchroom. A crime.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Why we shouldn’t arrest kids, or adults, for cursing or being obnoxious

School discipline, academics and the 18th horse

Of course they shouldn’t be prosecuted, but not for this reason

A belch in gym class, then handcuffs and a lawsuit

Why the double standard for police?

After Spring Valley: Can we find some common ground on school discipline?

Are these really behaviors we want to criminalize?

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I’m not talking about students who steal or bring knives and guns to school or sexually assault their classmates or beat other students to a pulp (although even that was handled as a school disciplinary matter back when I was in school). Yes, those kids need to be arrested.

Does it make sense to arrest kids for doing things they wouldn’t be arrested for if they were adults?

I’m talking about students who do things that for decades got students sent to the assistant principal’s office for a stern talking-to, after-school detention, suspension, possibly expulsion.

Let’s ask ourselves if it makes sense to arrest kids for doing things they wouldn’t be arrested for doing if they were adults.

Isn’t it supposed to work the other way around? Aren’t we supposed to understand that kids — especially teenagers — do some really stupid things, and make some allowances for that?

Isn’t part of education supposed to be about helping them grow up? Which is hard to do, at least in a good way, from inside a jail cell.

When we send the kids to jail, even for 90 days, their chance of graduating from high school plummets. And their chance of becoming deadbeats, or criminals, skyrockets.

When we send the kids to jail, even for 90 days, their chance of graduating from high school plummets. And their chance of becoming deadbeats, or criminals, skyrockets. And the rest of us end up supporting them — or being victimized by them.

This isn’t what legislators intended when they passed the disturbing-schools law, back in 1919. It was strictly meant to protect students — and specifically female students — from outsiders. But when Jasper County school officials asked the attorney general in 1994 if they could use the law to arrest students who fought on campus or refused to leave campus when asked by a principal, he said yes.

After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, we started bringing police officers onto school campuses — school safety officers, we call them — in large numbers. Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of gun-wielding students or adults to keep them busy; so they gradually became part of the school-disciplinary process. Unfortunately, when you ask police to handle school discipline, they’re going to handle it via criminal laws. Enter the all-encompassing disturbing-schools law.

Efforts to change the law devolved into a spat about how ‘teachers can’t teach because those students are out of control’ and ‘you just want to lock up black kids,’ and we lost sight of the difference between school discipline and crime.

After the Spring Valley incident that we’re not going to think about, school officials and a lot of law enforcement officials agreed that police shouldn’t be handling school discipline, and that the disturbing-schools law was way too broad. But efforts to change the law devolved into a culture-war spat about how “teachers can’t teach because those students are out of control” and need to be sent to jail, and “you just want to lock up black kids,” and we lost sight of the difference between school discipline and actual crime. And since we’re not going to think about all that, we’re also not going to think about all those racial undertones. And overtones.

Early last year, the S.C. Senate quietly passed Sen. Mia McLeod’s S.131, which says students can’t be charged under the disturbing-schools statute, unless they’re suspended or expelled at the time. The bill also creates a new crime just for students, who could be charged for threatening bodily injury or death to anyone, through any means of communication.

The bill then went to the House, where it was left for dead. Until week before last, when a subcommittee took it up, and suddenly, Lazarus-like, it arose from the dead. Or not.

You’d be amazed at how many bills pass that quickly.

Maybe approving the bill was an empty or even cynical gesture by the subcommittee, coming so late in the two-year legislative session. The bill is set for debate on Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee, and even if it clears the committee, it’s a long shot with just six legislative days before adjournment. The soonest it could pass is a week later — two days from the end of the session — and that’s if the committee staff gets it to the floor on Wednesday, and all 124 representatives agree to vote on it a day earlier than the standard procedure.

That means there’s time for two days’ delay. Not three. Just two. But you’d be amazed at how many bills pass that quickly. And with the backing of the state Board of Education and the superintendent of education and local school officials across the state and, according to lobbyist for the state’s 16 solicitors, all of the state’s law enforcement groups, there’s no good reason this one can’t. And every good reason that it should.

UPDATE: The House passed this legislation on May 10, and Gov. Henry McMaster signed it into law on May 17.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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