Midlands state legislators are doubling down on their call to have South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law repealed, after the federal government filed a statement in which it was critical of the statute.
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” on Monday in the case filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina on behalf of former Spring Valley High School student Niya Kenny and others.
In the statement, the justice department said the vagueness of the “disturbing schools” law has contributed to the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” which “disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities.”
The statement also calls out the defendants in the case for failing to “address the alleged disparity in enforcement” of the law in none of their multiple motions to dismiss, responses or replies. Attorney General Alan Wilson, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook are among 14 defendants named in the lawsuit.
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“The criminalization of everyday and ordinary childhood behavior under imprecise statutes can have disastrous and discriminatory consequences,” said Vanita Gupta, chief of the justice department’s Civil Rights Division, in a statement.
“Laws must provide officers with sufficient guidance to distinguish between innocent and delinquent conduct and ensure that all children receive the full protections of our Constitution,” Gupta said. “We must remain vigilant to ensure law enforcement practices do not unnecessarily remove children from the classroom and place them in a pipeline to prison.”
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford and Rep. Joe Neal, both Richland Democrats, have previously supported legislation that would make changes to the decades-old law.
Rutherford, who represents Kenny and intends to file a civil rights lawsuit in civil court, lauded the justice department’s involvement.
“It’s about time that our laws regarding our children are conformed to meet the standard that the Supreme Court has already set,” Rutherford said.
Kenny was arrested at Spring Valley High School in October 2015 for filming an incident between former Richland County sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields and another student. Video of the incident went viral online, sparking a debate about S.C. law and the role of police officers in classrooms.
In September, 5th Circuit solicitor Dan Johnson announced that no charges would be filed against Fields, Kenny or the girl Fields tossed across the classroom after pulling her from her desk.
Since then, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the justice department have started to overhaul the department’s school resource officer program, with an emphasis on making sure officers don’t get involved in matters that should be handled by school staff.
Lott, who previously welcomed the justice department’s oversight, this week called on the General Assembly to review the law.
“Unfortunately, the ambiguity of the law has resulted in abuse and misuse that has resulted in criminal charges of students that are actually discipline and classroom management issues,” Lott said.
Neal vowed Thursday to reintroduce his bill that would have clarified the law by having it not apply to students, but to people who loiter around the schools, which he has previously said was the original intent of the law.
“We need to be sure that we’re not creating circumstances that promote the incarceration of children for ordinary behavior,” Neal said. “It’s my hope that partisan politics would not play a role in creating responses to problems that we know are creating inequities for certain children.”
Efforts to reach S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman were unsuccessful. In the past, she has focused on changing how school resources officers are used and reviewing discipline practices.
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson determined in September that no criminal charges would be brought against Fields. The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the case for possible federal civil rights violations but has made no decision.