Four current or recent students and a local nonprofit organization filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging the constitutionality of South Carolina’s disturbing-schools law for its “broad reach and arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, allege the controversial statute “creates an impossible standard for school children to follow and for police to enforce with consistency and fairness” in violation of their 14th Amendment right to due process.
The disturbing-schools law, enacted nearly 100 years ago to protect girls’ schools from intruders, prohibits “obnoxious behavior” on school grounds. A misdemeanor, it carries a penalty of up to a $1,000 fine and a 90-day jail sentence.
But in the past 15 years, the law has been used to route thousands of adolescents, most of them black, through the state’s juvenile justice system. In 2015, disturbing schools was the third most common source of referrals to the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
“It’s just absurd,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU’s South Carolina office. “The way (the law) is being interpreted is criminalizing being a teenager.”
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, is 19-year-old Niya Kenny of Richland County, who was charged with disturbing schools in October when she allegedly cursed after shooting a video of a school resource officer violently arresting one of her classmates at Spring Valley High School. The case made national headlines after Kenny’s video spread over social media.
According to the lawsuit, Kenny was “scared and humiliated” throughout her arrest. She was handcuffed in front of her class and hauled to an adult detention center, where she was fingerprinted and photographed. Kenny eventually withdrew from school and entered a GED program.
Other plaintiffs include:
Taurean Nesmith, a 21-year-old Benedict College student who said he was arrested for disturbing schools and disorderly conduct at his college-owned apartment building after a campus police officer asked to see his identification. When Nesmith “continued to question the officer’s actions,” the lawsuit states, Nesmith was handcuffed and detained overnight. His charges were later dropped.
A 17-year-old black student, identified as “D.S.,” who was arrested for disturbing schools at Stall High School in North Charleston after “becoming involved in a physical altercation which she did not initiate.”
A 15-year-old white student, identified as “S.P.,” who was arrested for disorderly conduct at Travelers Rest High School in Greenville County after cursing at students who were mocking her.
Girls Rock Charleston, a largely volunteer-run nonprofit serving at-risk and system-involved girls and transgender youth that has “expended significant time and resources” dealing with disturbing-schools court proceedings.
“The disturbing-schools act effectively ‘brands’ kids,” said Micah Blaise, program director of Girls Rock Charleston. “Once charged, their teachers and classmates tend to treat them differently and that really damages their self-esteem.”
The lawsuit names Attorney General Alan Wilson as a defendant, along with the chiefs and sheriffs of numerous law enforcement agencies in Charleston, Richland and Greenville counties. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie are among the defendants.
North Charleston and Charleston police spokesmen declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred questions to the cities’ legal departments. Reached by email Thursday, city of Charleston spokesman Jack O’Toole said the city legal department was still reviewing the lawsuit.
In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott addressed last year’s incident at Spring Valley High. Since then, he said, his department’s school resource officers receive better training and their roles are more clearly defined. Earlier this week, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department reached an agreement with the Department of Justice to overhaul its school resource officer program and reduce school-based arrests.
“That’s where disturbing-schools law is still a thorn in our side because a discipline issue can be considered disturbing schools, which is a criminal act,” Lott said. “SROs know now you can tell a teacher or administrator, ‘No, that’s not my job and I’m not going to do that’ and not worry about getting in trouble.”
The ACLU’s lawsuit also notes the disturbing-schools statute is disproportionately invoked to arrest black students and students with disabilities.
Black juveniles statewide are almost four times as likely to be charged with disturbing schools as their white peers, according to the ACLU. In Charleston County, black students account for 85 percent of disturbing-schools arrests, despite making up just 40 percent of the student population.
The lawsuit is seeking a court order to stop law enforcement officials from enforcing the disturbing-schools law and arresting elementary or middle school students on the charge of disorderly conduct.
“We’re hoping the decision will benefit not just students but the people in law enforcement by having a clearer delineation of where the line is,” Dunn said. “Discipline on one side and criminal is on the other side.”
At a community town hall Thursday evening at the International Longshoremen’s Association Hall in downtown Charleston, education and youth advocates lamented the disparate impact of disturbing-schools charges on black students who nationally are overrepresented in jails and prisons.
“We are losing far too many minority children to the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ ” said Louis Smith, executive director of the Community Resource Center in Summerville. “This has got to stop.”
Gavin Jackson contributed to this report.