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Proposed changes to SC disturbing-schools law going nowhere

After a white sheriff’s deputy forcibly removed an African-American Spring Valley High School student from her desk, S.C. lawmakers called for changes to a law they say unfairly criminalizes students.

But, six months later, those reform efforts are going nowhere.

To date, four S.C. bills aimed at changing South Carolina’s disturbing-schools law remain stuck in committee, where they were sent shortly after being introduced in the Republican-controlled legislature. The bills are sponsored almost exclusively by Democrats.

Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, would exclude students from the threat of being arrested under the law. Sponsors argue that the law was intended to protect students from outsiders coming on a school’s campus, loitering there, causing a disturbance or threatening students’ safety.

A separate House bill would require the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy to teach police officers who work in schools about the various cultures, backgrounds, behaviors and attitudes they might encounter, expose them to different communities and tell them of services available for students to help avoid an arrest or other harsh disciplinary action.

A fourth bill, introduced in the House and called the “Stop the School House to Jail House Pipeline Act,” would create a committee to review the state's juvenile justice laws and recommend changes.

The disturbing-schools law allows school administrators to call in law enforcement to manage just about any misbehavior, leading to criminal charges against students, critics say.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman says she wants school districts to change the way they use school-resource officers as well as their discipline policies.

Spearman said her hope is districts will adopt the changes so “that we won't see such a disproportionate number of African-American kids in a criminal situation where they're being expelled.”

“When a child is expelled, it's very difficult for them to get any schooling,” Spearman added. “They're pretty much out there” by themselves.

From 2001 to 2010, disturbing schools was the No. 1 reason that youth, 16 and under, were referred to family courts, according to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.

The same was true in Richland and Lexington counties, which combined accounted for between 8 percent and 16 percent of the state's disturbing-schools cases during that same period.

Late in the 2001-2010 decade, disturbing-schools charges swelled to 13 percent of all juvenile offenses statewide, hitting a 15-year high at 3,222 cases in 2006-07. But, by 2010, the number of cases dropped off in the Midlands and statewide, falling to 1,067 in 2010-11 and 1,222 last year.

Juvenile Justice officials attribute those falling numbers to efforts to focus on community-based programs, aimed at keeping youth out of trouble, and non-jail options, aimed at keeping youthful offenders from getting in trouble again.

Despite that downward trend, the presence of law enforcement officers in S.C. schools is driving calls for reform.

“School resource officers have been asked to deal with non-criminal discipline issues,” leading to unfair criminal charges against students for misbehavior, Spearman said.

More than 600 school-resource officers work in S.C. schools. But not all of those officers have had the proper training, according to a Safe Schools Taskforce that Spearman formed after the Spring Valley incident.

That taskforce recommended school-resource officers only intervene in illegal activities, not cases where students misbehave, such as the incident at Spring Valley, where a student refused to put up her cell phone.

“There are a lot of unfair issues out there,” Spearman said. “We're trying to go through everything to make it fair and also make it common sense.”

Disturbing schools in SC

Referrals to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice for violating the state’s disturbing-schools law have dropped by more than a half since 2001-02. Here’s a look at the number of disturbing-schools cases referred to Juvenile Justice from 2001-02 to 2014-15. The stats show the number of disturbing-school referrals statewide and on a county-by-county basis, rather than by school district, because family courts operate by county, not school district. (For years marked NR — or not relevant — disturbing-schools cases were not among the top five reasons that a county referred youth to Juvenile Justice.)

Year

Kershaw

(single school system)

Lexington

(Lexington 1-4 districts

and part of district 5)

Richland

(Richland 1, 2,

and part of District 5)

Statewide

2014-2015

11

NR

97

1,222

2013-2014

NR

NR

98

1,189

2012-2013

NR

NR

111

1,101

2011-2012

11

NR

122

1,204

2010-2011

13

NR

62

1,067

2009-2010

NR

117

65

1,780

2008-2009

NR

98

89

2,339

2007-2008

NR

115

133

2,888

2006-2007

NR

161

166

3,222

2005-2006

27

132

120

2,726

2004-2005

20

159

205

2,801

2003-2004

29

211

200

2,560

2002-2003

17

224

172

2,658

2001-2002

24

274

153

2,643

SOURCE: S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice

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