A South Carolina Student Was Arrested for ‘Disturbing a School’ When She Challenged Police Abuse, So We Sued

Niya Kenny, a South Carolina student who challenged police abuse and then was arrested on charges of “disturbing a school.”

One day last fall, Niya Kenny was sitting in her math class at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, when a police officer came into the classroom. A girl in her class had refused to put away her cell phone, and the teacher had summoned an administrator, who called on the officer assigned to the school.

Niya thought the officer's appearance was bad news — his name was Ben Fields, but he was so aggressive that students knew him as Officer Slam. As soon as he entered the room, she called out for other students to record him.

Three different students made cell phone videos of what happened next. Fields picked the girl up, flipped her in her desk, and then grabbed an arm and a leg to throw her across the room. Niya stood up and called out, she recalled later. “Isn’t anyone going to help her?” she asked. “Ya’ll cannot do this!”

Niya was so scared she began to shake and cry. As Fields handcuffed the other girl, he turned toward Niya and told her she was going to jail, too.

Niya was arrested, handcuffed, charged as an adult, and taken to jail. She was released that evening with criminal charges of “disturbing a school.”

Today she’s fighting back. On her behalf, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the South Carolina law that makes “disturbing a school” a criminal offense, on grounds that it’s unconstitutionally vague. The ACLU is also challenging another vague “disorderly conduct” law, which makes it a crime for students at school to conduct themselves in a “disorderly or boisterous manner.”

Learn more about the case

Every year, more than a thousand students in South Carolina — some as young as 7 years old — face criminal charges for not following directions, loitering, cursing, or the vague allegation of acting “obnoxiously.” If charged as adults, they can be held in jail for up to 90 days.

Students of color are four times as likely as white students to face criminal charges under this law. In Charleston, Black students are about six times more likely than their white peers to be charged under the statute.

Across the country, the ACLU is concerned about similar laws criminalizing routine adolescent behavior, which disproportionately affect kids of color.

The South Carolina law has been invoked to pull thousands of young people out of classrooms and push them into systems of juvenile and adult criminal justice.

  • D.S., 17, an African-American student at Stall High School in Charleston, who has learning disabilities and a heart condition, was charged as an adult with “disturbing schools” after a minor physical altercation. In the adult criminal justice system, she faced possible detention because of her inability to pay fines and fees.
  • S.P., 15, a white student with behavioral and emotional disabilities at Travelers Rest High School in Greenville, was charged with “disorderly conduct” after failing to comply with instructions to leave the school library and cursing at a student who was making fun of her.
  • K.B., 15, a Latina student from Charleston, was charged with “disturbing schools” after she got upset over having to pick up a tardy slip when she was late for gym class. After her complaints drew the attention of others in the hallway, she was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and arrested.
  • D.D., an African-American student in Charleston who has struggled with homelessness, was charged with “disturbing schools” after talking to another student after she was sent out of class.  She has subsequently spent two years languishing in a computer-based education program that is not designed to lead to a high school diploma.

For Niya, the courage to speak up against what she knew to be wrong came with a price. She is being treated like a criminal. Ben Fields lost his job, but Niya is still facing charges.

Anxious and fearful about going back to school, days after the arrest, Niya dropped out and enrolled in a GED program.

Niya’s arrest had serious consequences for her. Children should not be hauled out of school in handcuffs for talking back in class. We will keep fighting school disturbance laws across the country so that kids like Niya can stay in their classrooms and out of the criminal justice system.

Kids should never go to jail for simply acting their age.

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Anonymous

You are very misguided and ignorant!

Anonymous

Your blatent racism has no place here...racism is on the way out, haven't you heard? Evolve or get left in the dirt...

Expatmom

Wow. You are clueless, aren't you?

Anonymous

An officer has an established history of abusing and arresting children for things my classmates -- uniformly white in a highly segregated school in the south -- did every single day of my high school career when cell phones first became a thing among that age group a decade ago. And you worry about classroom disruptions. Not ritualized racist abuse of children. As we'd say in the south, bless your heart...

Anonymous

You "know" how black people act because of no consequences!
How dare you!

Anonymous

Have you see the videos of the incident? And as an African American with children, very well believed and manner able, your comment is very offensive and stereotypical to me

Anonymous

Discipline is one thing. Criminal Charges, are you for real?

Anonymous

Consequences for disrupting class should be detention, or suspension. And, in this girl's case, the officer had already disrupted class. How do you expect these kids to behave when they're already walking around with targets on their backs just because of their skin tone.

Anonymous

How about sending the kid to the principals office? She was on her cell phone not shooting a gun.

Bon

Full disclosure, I work at a school. So no, I am not sure I know how 'black' students act any differently in class than students of other races/heritages. Can you please explain? There is disciplinary action and there is abuse of power. Students slammed to ground, handcuffed, and/or arrested is not the appropriate action to take for misbehavior. For criminal behavior - probably. Especially children - my gosh - would anyone want their son/daughter treated in this manner by anyone?

Yes, there should be consequences to anyone who disrupts class and it should be for schools and parents to decide - not the police. At our school we have students of all races, nationalities, and backgrounds. I do not see any more misbehavior from Blacks, Latinos, Asians, or any other nationality or race than I see in white students.

As far as black people disrupting society - not sure what that means. Are they protesting the disproportionate treatment they receive? Are they frustrated and angry after years of being denied the right (voter ID to prevent fraud - oh please)? I grew in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights marches (way too young to really understand, but remember it very well). Some things have gotten better, still have a ways to go on others.

Police officers in schools is something I did not experience growing up. I can only imagine what students must think or feel about seeing them in the halls. They are there to learn - not be guarded or watched for an infraction. The ACLU wants equal treatment for all students-be it disciplinary or rewards for good work. Believe me if you ever have an issue with the government denying you any of Constitutional Rights you will be so glad to have the ACLU to fight for you.

Thank you for allowing me to have the opportunity to express my opinion.

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