Politics & Government

Panel of SC Democrats takes aim at school-to-prison pipeline

S.C. Democratic Party 2nd vice chair Melissa Watson, party chair Jaime Harrison, Charleston software developer Bratton Riley and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott participate in a panel on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
S.C. Democratic Party 2nd vice chair Melissa Watson, party chair Jaime Harrison, Charleston software developer Bratton Riley and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott participate in a panel on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. awilks@thestate.com

A panel of S.C. Democrats on Saturday suggested providing more training for teachers and school resource officers to handle at-risk youth and using diversionary justice programs would help close the school-to-prison pipeline.

The issue, discussed at Democrats’ annual John Spratt Issues Conference, touched close to home last fall when a Richland County resource officer pulled a Spring Valley High School student out of her chair and dragged her across a classroom floor.

After the incident, two students were charged under the state’s disturbing-schools law, which has been criticized for criminalizing students’ bad behavior.

The charges later were dropped. But a bill to put an end to arresting students for disturbing schools died at the end of the legislative session this summer.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, a Democrat and a member of Saturday’s panel, said that incident demonstrated the overuse of that law and revealed a need to clearly define officers’ role in schools. Officers should keep schools safe and deter crime but not manage classrooms, Lott said.

“My SROs had a hard time telling a teacher, ‘No, that’s not my job,” Lott said. “Now, they know they can say ‘no.’ My SRO at Spring Valley should have said ‘no.’”

The panel, one of several held at the conference Saturday, looked at systemic problems that lead to student misbehavior and, in some cases, incarceration.

Implicit bias – or attitudes, especially about race, that subconsciously affect judgment – plays a role, some panelists said. Black students were three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white ones in S.C. public schools last year.

“We are suspending and expelling children as early as pre-K,” said Sandra Ray, an elementary school teacher and member of the S.C. Education Association.

S.C. Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison said that puts “some of our kids on a track that they can’t get off.”

The sheer number of poverty-stricken S.C. children who enter schools unprepared academically and socially also is problematic, panelists said. Students who cannot handle class material sometimes give up and act out instead.

Some panelists suggested the state provide more training so teachers and resource officers know how to respond.

Ray said schools also should have mental health counselors on staff who can help children experiencing trauma.

“It’s unrealistic to expect a resource officer to address those kinds of issues,” she said.

Lott on Saturday also lauded his department’s youth arbitration program, which he said provides alternatives that keep student offenders in many cases from ever being handcuffed, seeing a judge or entering the criminal justice system. That program has a 92 percent success rate, he said.

“Arresting someone is not the answer,” he said. “You hold them responsible, but you’ve got to give them a chance. You’ve got to give them that second chance.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

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