Disturbing Schools (copy)

On Oct. 26. 2015, Senior Deputy Ben Fields forcibly removed a student from her chair after she refused to leave her math class at Spring Valley High in Columbia. The incident sparked a debate over the scope and purpose of law enforcement in schools, along with a push to revise the state's "disturbing schools" law. File

COLUMBIA — South Carolina students could no longer be arrested for "disturbing schools" under Statehouse legislation that advanced Thursday with the backing of law enforcement groups.

The charge's catch-all definition in state law is so broad "we're criminalizing youthful behavior," said Richland County sheriff's Capt. Chris Cowan.

"If this statute had existed when I was in school, I wouldn't be wearing this uniform right now," he said.

Under the bill sent to the House Judiciary Committee, only students who have been expelled or suspended and return to campus to cause trouble could be charged with the misdemeanor. 

Legislators sympathized with Melissa Still, who testified her 11-year-old son — a "straight-A student who had never been in trouble" — was handcuffed behind his back and taken to the Newberry County Sheriff's Office in October after another 11-year-old started punching him for fumbling a football during a physical education class.

After her son hit back, several other students jumped on his back. Still's husband, Lance, saw what was happening from the carpool lane, broke up the fight and reported it, never imaging their son would be arrested. 

"He has a criminal juvenile record for defending himself over a fumbled football," plus he was suspended for three days, Melissa Still said. "He was ridiculed when he returned and is now on a behavior plan where he's watched like a hawk — for nothing. The law has to be changed."  

Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, said her proposal returns the law to its original intent, as approved in 1919 — to protect students from outside threats. Beyond applying only to non-students who come onto campus, her bill increases the penalty from up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail to a $2,000 fine and a year in prison. 

McLeod has been advocating the bill since 2015 when cellphone video of a Richland County officer yanking a student from her desk and throwing her to the floor prompted outrage nationwide.

The deputy had been called to the classroom after the teen refused to stop using her cellphone and leave the classroom. He was fired.

The then-16-year-old student, as well as the student who shot the video, were both charged with disturbing schools. 

The Senate overwhelmingly approved McLeod's bill a year ago. But the South Carolina Sheriffs' Association and 7th Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette opposed the legislation, saying it should remain an option for officers, which effectively blocked any movement in the House. 

On Thursday, however, the director of the state Commission on Prosecution Coordination told legislators that all law enforcement groups support the bill.

"This gets us where we need to be. There are outrageous examples of how this law has been abused in the past," said Director David Ross, who represents solicitors statewide. "I wonder how we even let it go for this long." 

McLeod said a recent court decision helped sway the vote in her favor. 

In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union sued South Carolina in federal court, challenging the state's "disturbing schools" charge as unconstitutionally vague. A federal judge dismissed the case last year. But last month the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that decision and sent the case back to court. 

Last school year, 652 "disturbing schools" cases were referred to solicitors statewide, representing 5 percent of all juvenile arrests and the fifth most common charge. That's down from 1,222 cases during the year before the Spring Valley incident. 

Josh Gupta-Kagan, a University of South Carolina Law School professor, credits the high-profile case with the drop in arrests but said there are still too many. As memory of the Spring Valley arrest fades, the numbers could rise again unless the law's changed, he warned.

Arresting a student for normal adolescent behavior, instead of handling it through the school's discipline policy, significantly increases the likelihood that child will drop out of school and commit crimes in the future "and thus put us all at risk," he said.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.