A Columbia student arrested after filming a white sheriff’s deputy tossing an African-American girl from her desk is challenging South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law in federal court.
The suit alleges that law, which critics say unfairly criminalizes students’ actions, is unconstitutional and unfairly impacts black students more than whites.
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina filed the suit Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Charleston.
The complaint, filed on behalf of former Spring Valley High School student Niya Kenny and others, alleges the S.C. law has overly broad language that has been used “to draw thousands of adolescents into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
The law is “far-reaching and nebulous” allowing students to be charged for behaviors including “loitering, cursing, or undefined ‘obnoxious’ actions on school grounds,” the advocacy group said in a news release.
The lawsuit names as defendants S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and 13 heads of law enforcement agencies across the state, including Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook.
The ACLU said it found hundreds of students, some as young as 7 years old, have been charged under the law. The lawsuit says African-American students are more likely than whites to be charged with disturbing schools, which continues to be a top reason students are referred to the juvenile justice system.
Kenny was arrested at Spring Valley High School in October for filming an incident between Richland County sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields and another student. Video of the incident went viral online, sparking a the S.C. law and the role of police officers in the classroom.
The lawsuit comes about a month before Kenny, 19, is scheduled to have a court hearing on the charges against her. She and the girl thrown from her desk were arrested and charged with disturbing schools.
State schools chief Molly Spearman and the S.C. Board of Education also are pushing changes to state discipline policies aimed at ensuring law enforcement only intervene in disciplinary matters when student behavior reaches criminal levels.
Other parties suing with Kenny, according to the ACLU, include Benedict College student Taurean Nesmith of Kingstree. The 21-year-old was arrested and charged with disturbing schools “because he criticized a police officer for racial profiling during the stop of a fellow student,” the advocacy group says. Nesmith was arrested at his college-owned apartment building.
Other plaintiffs are:
▪ A white 15-year-old Greenville County student with behavioral and emotional disabilities identified as “S.P.” As a freshman at Travelers Rest High School, the student was “charged with a crime after failing to comply with instructions to leave the library and cursing at a student who was making fun of her,” the ACLU said.
▪ A 17-year-old African-American student from Charleston identified as “D.S.” The Stall High School student was charged with disturbing schools “after a minor physical altercation,” which “led her into the adult criminal justice system” and put her at “risk of detention for inability to pay fines and fees.”
▪ Girls Rock Charleston, a nonprofit organization that provides an after-school program for youth who are at risk or have been involved in the criminal justice system. The group alleges that the youth it serves are at risk of arrest and that the law makes it difficult to carry out its mission.
S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said the ACLU’s involvement in the case could help revive proposed changes to the state’s disorderly conduct law that would have exempted students. Those proposals died in the Legislature this year. Supporters of the change said the law, first enacted more than 100 years ago, was intended to protect students from outsiders causing trouble on school campuses.
The lawsuit also aims to overturn the state’s “disorderly conduct” law, which the plaintiffs say is vague and criminalizes students for behaviors that schools typically handle, such as cursing, refusing to follow directions and getting involved in fights that do not result in serious injuries.
If the suit succeeds, its impact could extend beyond the classroom, Rutherford said.
“Disorderly conduct is a fail safe” for law enforcement who cannot justify an arrest on another charge, so they arrest someone on disorderly conduct, said the Columbia defense attorney representing Kenny.
“This reaches everywhere.”
Discipline in S.C. schools
The state’s disturbing schools law came under fire last October after a white sheriff’s deputy threw an African-American student at Spring Valley High School from her desk. The girl reportedly refused to leave class after reportedly failing to put away her cell phone. A look at the law’s impact and where efforts to change it stand:
▪ From 2001 to 2010, disturbing schools was the top reason that youth, 16 and under, were referred to family courts, The State found in April after reviewing S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice records.
▪ Efforts to exempt students from the law have failed.
▪ Now, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and the State Board of Education are hoping to change state discipline policies to ensure law enforcement intervene only when student behavior is criminal.