The now-infamous videos from Spring Valley High School led quickly to modest action: The sheriff fired the officer, and the school district has promised improved training to avoid the unnecessary use of force in school discipline.
These are welcome first steps, but authorities must answer more fundamental questions if this incident is going to lead to more significant improvements for S.C. children: Why was a police officer involved in a routine classroom discipline situation in the first place? Why was adolescent disobedience — the child refused educators’ instructions to leave the classroom — treated as a crime?
Answering these questions reveals a need to reform both the role of school resource officers — uniformed, armed police officers stationed in public schools — and the rare S.C. statute that criminalizes non-violent school misbehavior. While children should obey educators’ instructions, schools and families should impose consequences when they do not. Law enforcement and the courts should be reserved for threats to public safety.
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South Carolina should follow guidance from the U.S. Justice and Education departments that educators should handle routine school discipline, and school resource officers should be “focused on protecting the physical safety of the school or preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students.” Calling the police to enforce teacher directives unnecessarily escalates matters. And, as the Justice Department has advised, law enforcement involvement in everyday discipline matters leads to “inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement.”
We must also examine why these two Spring Valley students and hundreds of other S.C. children are charged with “disturbing schools.” South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” statute makes it a crime “to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school” and even “to act in an obnoxious manner.” This is a go-to criminal charge for unruly behavior at school — nearly 1,200 S.C. children are referred to juvenile court every year for “disturbing schools,” and that doesn’t include 17- and 18-year-olds who are charged as adults (including one of the Spring Valley students).
Scoppe: Let’s try to find some common ground on school discipline
Charging children for “disturbing schools” for resisting school authority has uncomfortable echoes of problems uncovered in Ferguson, Missouri. The Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson police department took school resource officers to task for referring disobedient children to juvenile court for “failure to comply.” Whether it’s called “failure to comply” or “disturbing schools,” it is an unwise criminalization of non-violent teenage misbehavior.
Involving police officers in school discipline harms both students and schools. Significant evidence suggests that arresting or charging children reduces the likelihood that they will graduate high school and increases the likelihood that they will commit future crimes. Charging students for school misbehavior is a hallmark of zero-tolerance school discipline policies, which the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have criticized. Those organizations relied on research showing stricter punishment is associated with worse school discipline problems and lower academic achievement — even when controlling for demographic differences. Unfortunately, S.C. schools illustrate the problem by imposing out-of-school suspensions at significantly higher rates than the national norm.
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We need reform in at least two areas. First, law enforcement and school districts should establish clear boundaries for school resource officers, who should focus on students’ safety, not disobedience. Educators should not request police assistance absent a safety risk, and police should decline requests to help absent such risks.
Second, the Legislature should amend the “disturbing schools” statute so it does not apply to students enrolled at the school. This would effectively direct schools to handle regular discipline issues, and reserve police and court action for true threats to school safety, which would remain criminalized under a host of other statutes.
Let’s hope education and law enforcement leaders will use this incident to catalyze meaningful systemic reforms.
Dr. Gupta-Kagan teaches juvenile justice law at the USC School of Law; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.