A bill that would limit the scope of South Carolina’s controversial “disturbing schools” law hit a speed bump on Wednesday after some law enforcement and prosecutorial officials expressed concerns.
The bill by Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, seeks to return the law to is original intent, which was to protect students and school staffers from outside agitators. The proposal would exclude students as those who can be charged under the disturbing schools statute.
“The law is extremely vague, and it criminalizes students for non-criminal behavior,” McLeod said. “I know that this bill is long overdue.”
But the bill left the Senate panel where it was discussed with an amendment that would allow students to still be charged under the disturbing schools law, if the student is still misbehaving after teachers and school staff have given repeated, verbal, on-the-spot warnings to stop.
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McLeod expressed frustration with the change, adding she did not understand why students should be arrested for what many consider typical, teenage obnoxious behavior.
Several spoke in favor the bill, including Columbia attorney Jay Elliot, Richland School District 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm and Josh Gupta-Kagan, an expert in juvenile justice at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Elliot said. “This is a classroom-management issue. Schools do not need to be a place that is infested with law enforcement.”
Richland County Deputy Chief Chris Cowan also spoke on behalf of Sheriff Leon Lott, who had a scheduling conflict and could not make the meeting. Lott previously has been critical of the law and has called on the Legislature to address its vagueness.
“The law was passed with good intentions, but over the years, it’s been misused,” Cowan said.
He cited the Spring Valley High School incident in which a teen was tossed across the room by a then-Richland deputy serving as a school resource officer in 2015. The former officer was attempting to arrest the teen under the disturbing schools law for refusing to put away her cellphone in class.
Cowan said the incident was “clearly a classroom management” issue, and the officer should have never been asked to enter the room in the first place.
But McLeod’s bill also had its detractors, including Jarod Bruder, the executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association and David Ross, executive director of the Commission on Prosecution Coordination.
Both said they understood that the current law was too vague, but would prefer it be refined instead of eliminated.
“The concern that we have is that the current bill would basically grant immunity, as I see it, for some types of conduct that occur within a school by a student,” Ross said.
Ross suggested the amendment that was ultimately adopted and advanced with the bill, though panel chairman Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said it could still be altered to the original once it goes before the next Senate panel.