Cops in elementary schools: Are students safer now? (copy)

In this 2014 photo, North Charleston school resource officer Eric Jourdan greets second-grader Sade Alston as he roams the halls of Burns Elementary School. File/Staff

A bill that would create a study committee charged with reviewing South Carolina's juvenile justice laws, including the controversial disturbing-schools statute, cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday morning. 

Dubbed the "Stop the School House to Jail House Pipeline Act," House Bill 3055, co-sponsored by Reps. Leola Robinson-Simpson, D-Greenville, and Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, was given the green light by the Criminal Laws Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill tasks a committee composed of 10 members from the Senate and the House with making recommendations to the General Assembly on ways to divert more juveniles from the criminal justice system.

The bill also calls on school boards to adopt "zero-tolerance" polices that are not applied to "petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors," such as minor fights and disturbances. Finally, the bill charges the Criminal Justice Academy with implementing "a cultural competency model training program" for school resource officers. 

"We just feel that how minor infractions are treated early in the lives of our young people can make a great difference because it impacts the rest of their lives," said Bernadette Hampton, president of the S.C. Education Association, who testified before the subcommittee about the consequences of student suspensions and arrests. "We're just trying to avoid all of the long-term impacts so we can put measures in place in the beginning that will help our young people."

The disturbing-schools statute, enacted nearly 100 years ago to protect girls’ schools from intruders, prohibits “obnoxious behavior” on school grounds. A misdemeanor, the law 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. Disturbing schools was the second-most common source of referrals to the state Department of Juvenile Justice in the last fiscal year. The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina is challenging the statute's constitutionality in federal court. 

A version of House Bill 3055 was introduced last year but, like similar bills aimed at amending the state's disturbing schools statute or curbing school-based arrests, it stalled in committee as the Legislature worked against the clock to pass a roads funding package and other legislation.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said law enforcement officials continue to "raise frivolous objections" to lawmakers' efforts to reform the state's disturbing-schools law. Rutherford is one of eight legislators co-sponsoring a bill this session that seeks to clarify the disturbing-schools statute so only unwelcome outsiders, not students, are threatened with arrest.

“They still want to maintain their powers of arrest, and that has caused the bill to slow down," Rutherford said.

The state's disturbing schools law garnered national attention in October 2015, when cellphone videos emerged of a white sheriff's deputy violently arresting a black teenage girl for allegedly refusing to leave her math class at Columbia's Spring Valley High School. The girl and a classmate who filmed one of the viral videos of the encounter were both charged with disturbing schools.

The U.S. Department of Justice decided there was insufficient evidence to bring civil rights charges against the former deputy.

“I’m not confident," Rutherford added, that the disturbing-schools law will be changed. "I’m hopeful.”

Andrew Brown contributed to this report. 

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764 and follower her on Twitter @DDpan. 

Deanna Pan is an enterprise reporter for The Post and Courier, where she writes about education and other issues. She grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in English from Ohio State University in 2012.