Child advocates rally behind proposed changes to ‘Disturbing Schools’ law

This three-image combo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student on Oct. 26 shows Senior Deputy Ben Fields trying to forcibly remove a student from her chair after she refused to leave her high school math class in Columbia. Fields cited the state’s “Disturbing Schools” law to arrest the girl.

COLUMBIA — A House panel failed to take action on a bill that would have narrowed the scope of South Carolina’s controversial “Disturbing Schools” statute.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, sought to return the law to its original intent, which was to protect students and teachers from outside agitators.

Opponents argue the current law is too broad and criminalizes what is considered normal teenaged behavior. In South Carolina, it is illegal for a child to interfere with students or teachers. The law extends into those who “act in an obnoxious manner.”

While the law has existed for decades, it has received increased scrutiny from lawmakers and advocates after it was cited by a Richland County Sheriff’s school resource officer who was filmed hurling a teenaged girl. He was attempting to arrest her in a Columbia area high school for refusing to put away her cellphone in class. The officer was quickly fired by Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, but opposition against the law has grown.

Juvenile defense attorney Aleksandra Chauhan argued that misbehavior by teens should be addressed by the community, not by law enforcement. Sending kids to jail for throwing a soda can in a cafeteria when upset places teens down a harrowing path, she said.

“Simply putting handcuffs on children has a great impact on them,” Chauhan said. “We cannot underestimate the damage that we are doing to children by over-criminalizing their behavior. Once they enter the criminal system, they remain in the criminal system.”

Chauhan was one of several advocates who testified in favor of changing the law but its advancement was halted because of concerns raised by S.C. Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder.

“Often times — if in the officer’s discretion an arrest is necessary — the officer uses the disturbing schools statute as his means for arrest because it is a lesser offense than, say, disorderly conduct or assault and battery,” Bruder said in a statement provided to the Judiciary Criminal Laws Subcommittee. “We do believe the bill has plenty of room for clarification as the bill references ‘obnoxious’ behavior and that could certainly be interpreted many ways.”

McLeod expressed frustration with Bruder’s opposition because bills that don’t pass at least one chamber by May 1 aren’t expected to pass by the end of the legislative session on June 2. McLeod, who is running to become a state senator next year, said that if elected she’d reintroduce the bill for a better chance of passing.

“This is something that we need to stop,” she said. “Schools have tools to handle ordinary classroom discipline. And the fact that they have put that into the hands of law enforcement, that’s an issue for all of us.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 843-708-5891.