South Carolina Legislature Repeals Racist ‘Disturbing School’ Law for Students

In 2015, video surfaced of a police officer violently dragging a Black girl from her school desk. He was arresting her, and using shockingly excessive force, because she was “disturbing school,” a vague law that more or less made it a crime for a student to be loud, to talk back to staff or school police. In other words, it criminalized being a kid. 

Unsurprisingly, this law has disproportionately affected students of color, who are already over-policed outside the school walls, so we sued in August 2016. Last week, we scored a victory on behalf of all students who have been pulled into the maze of the state’s criminal justice system.

On Thursday, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed an amendment repealing the crime of disturbing schools for students in the state of South Carolina. The importance of this law being signed cannot be understated. Its passage will eliminate a major source of the school-to-prison pipeline, which has caused grievous and lifelong harm to students across South Carolina. 

In addition to the immediate harms of being arrested and subjected to the criminal justice system, students are also subject to more severe discipline that can include expulsion or assignment to alternative programs that fail to provide a pathway to graduation. Stigma and further disconnect from school are also likely to follow, increasingly jeopardizing school success. And a criminal record alone can close the door to employment, college, and housing opportunities. 

When we filed our lawsuit, thousands of youth were arrested each year for things like talking to another student after being sent out of class, cursing in the lunchroom, and even for speaking out against police misconduct.  The vague terms of the law, which criminalized youth considered disturbing or obnoxious at school, also allowed for disparate and discriminatory enforcement. 

Our review found that across the state, Black youth were nearly four times as likely as their white classmates to be deemed criminally disturbing school. In Charleston, Black youth were a staggering six times more likely to be charged with the offense, and disturbing school was the number one reason youth entered the juvenile justice system. 

Sadly yet unsurprisingly, the circumstances in South Carolina are consistent with those found in many other jurisdictions. Across the country, Black youth and students of color, as well as students with disabilities, are more likely to be disciplined and arrested in school. Our culture of mass punishment that starts in schools is partly to blame. The law’s wording itself is also partly to blame. Disparities are more likely to be found when an offense is defined using subjective terms, allowing implicit bias to creep in and be weaponized by the Orwellian-named “school resource officers,” who are nothing more than cops in school. 

In South Carolina and elsewhere, the impacts are devastating for youth. For example, when children are pushed into the juvenile justice system from school, they are less likely to graduate and more likely to have future involvement with the criminal justice system. Fortunately, research on adolescent development has led to the creation of many school-based approaches to youth behavior that are more effective for both schools and children. 

In the year after we filed our lawsuit, the Department of Juvenile Justice reported a sharp decline in disturbing schools arrests. Schools, police, and communities were beginning to change their approach to school children.  The repeal of the disturbing schools crime for students is a further substantial step in the right direction for South Carolina’s students. We will continue to fight to ensure that no young person is treated as a criminal simply for being a child. No child’s education should be disturbed by racist and backward, and now illegal, “disturbing schools” laws anywhere in this country. 

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Anonymous

I am encouraged by this. It shows me that God is at work thru the minds of those who believe in what is right and just. Slowly, but surely a change is gonna come.

Doug Hipp

Being loud when the situation requires that you be quiet (e.g.. a classroom, library, someone else speaking), and talking back to staff or the police (or anyone), is not just kids being kids behavior. It is rude, obnoxious, and disruptive behavior. It is such behavior that one learns not to engage in at home or through normal socialization. When one's values of simple courtesy has not been learned at home or through normal socialization the laws must be put in place to discourage the rude, obnoxious and disruptive behavior. Just as laws have had to have been passed to discourage, theft, rape and murder, when normal socialization has failed to instill in certain segments of our society that such conduct is not to be tolerated, laws must be put in place to discourage rude, obnoxious and disruptive behavior. If the author of this article believes that such rude, obnoxious and disruptive behavior is acceptable kids just being kids behavior, then this author's socialization process has broken down somewhere.

Anonymous

A white kid yells at the teacher, get's sent to the principals office. A black/brown kid yells at the teacher, get handcuffed and taken to jail and is now part of the criminal justice system. I am sure most of the people commenting were perfect respectful angels in school.

Anonymous

Sadly, if Black students would obey the rules, so much of this wouldn't be an issue. The Black Lives Matter movement was started on this same premise when in reality each and every event from Trayvon Martin to the latest cases were all proven to be because the person did not respect the law, or respect authority of any kind. I'm glad you think you obtained success in this change in the law, but you have in actuality made things so much worse for school incidents.

Elizabeth B.

Apparently, the folks who pushed to repeal this law do not teach, nor have they been in an authoritative position in charge of a classroom full of students. Where is the ACLU support when teachers are verbally abused and disrespected by their students? Step up, powers that be, and back up your teachers! Stop using law enforcement and classrooms leaders as scapegoats for students who choose to be diliberately disrespectful toward teachers and school policies. South Carolina is losing good teachers in mass amounts due to lack of support where it really counts. Maybe we should focus on the lack of parental insistence that their children remember why they are at school in the first place and model what it means to be respectful of their teachers and school policies.

AnonymousRagan

Sounds like our school system is now run by students. Most of these problems result from no parental control at home. Racism is only being pushed on our kids by ACLU and "sue everyone" mentality. The girl you mentioned was asked several times to behave, got what she deserved. Other students have right to education not to be determined by one smart ass kid

Anonymous

The schools were actually erring on the side of not having black students arrested, since black kids are five times more likely to be disruptive and physically violent, and they were only being arrested at four times the rate of the white kids for that.

Anonymous

The same law as Florida where the students can curse and attack the teachers without being kicked out of school.This is a bad law.The President said he will get rid of this law that Obama enacted.South Carolina is being run by liberals that are called Republicans.Rinos.

Anonymous

Can they not still be expelled? Why would we send them to jail?

Anonymous

I think this is GREAT.
Great Win ACLU it’s time for change.
I moved to S.C. last year from Philadelphia and I agree. I have seen so much racial injustice. I at times have felt embarrassed of my White skin as I have and I will continue to educate people for their ignorance when they call someone the “N” word. In church circles. Which I don’t particate in because I will not associate with people that have the privilege of a college education and are so Hated filled.
Does America realize what’s its like for a black kid in the south? The KKK walks over a bridge in Anyor , SC on a regular basis and that is totally acceptable.
Can you imagine people think that’s normally HELLO thats WRONG. I was so angry I was fighting with everyone white person and literally one day a black man said to me it’s ok I said Using the N word is not ok. He said I am used to it. I said DONT get used to it. I learned so much from him He is bigger and Stonger than they Were. I can’t IMAGINE How ANGRY I would be if I was a black kid growing up in the South.
I would have never believe that this backward racism still exists. If I didn’t see if for my own eyes.

As more northerners are moving South for the weather things are changing SLOWLY sits still
The good old white fat bald boys club and the KKK does exist strong in the South.
Trust NO-ONE WANTS TO SEE THOSE COWARDS WEARING A CONE ON THIER HEAD

We need peace ✌️ and equality and we are one our way one step at a time !

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