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

no one is arguing that no disciplinary action be taken.

the argument is that the judicial system is not an appropriate venue for dealing with minor behavioral problems in schools, and that such matters should be handled within the school system.

invoking the judicial system to punish a student for talking back to a teacher is like using a sledgehammer to drive a thumbtack.

Anonymous

#wrong
#watchthenews

Matt

"We all know how black students act in class"... - You, are sadly prejudice, and overtly bigoted. You have every right to fly your 'flag' and continue living under a rock. Moron. GFYS And sign your name next time, coward.

Anonymous

This child did not disrupt the class. This child spoke out against excessive force. She was then punished for doing what a moral person would do - speaking up for those unable to speak up for themselves. She is legally still a child, but was treated as an adult. That is a violation of her civil rights, and well as the violation of her right to free speech by objecting to the violent behavior of an officer who had sworn to "protect & serve". Her behavior was that of a good person, one with values. Her fear of retribution so great she chose to take GED classes, rather than attend school, like a child her age should. So, your statements are ill informed. Learn the facts before making such declarations.

Anonymous

"We all know how black students act in class" is a piece of shit thing to say. You ought to be locked up for ignorance and prevented from reproducing.

Anonymous

what the hell is wrong with you, you racist piece of trash? when you and I went to school, if we were disruptive we went to detention. When they are disruptive, they are going to fucking jail. Thats whats wrong.

You are whats wrong with the world, so congratulations for that. Now please kill yourself and stop polluting the gene pool.

Anonymous

"We all know how black students act in class."

NO, we don't all know how black students act in class. Instead of talking out your ass, why don't you provide factual evidence to back up your claim, or are you one of the that cohort of anti-science and anti-intellectuals who never learned and likely were never taught how to differentiate between fact and fantasy?

Joe

I think that parents and communities want their children to be treated like children. This includes age-appropriate discipline, when children are behaving like... well, children. However, discipline and criminal charges and treatment are not the same. I don't believe this to be a matter of political belief systems - I believe it to be a matter of setting appropriate guidelines for supporting children in learning to be their best, with discipline and positive reinforcement standards. Nobody wants their children to enter the criminal justice system for talking back, being moody, commenting on their sense of fairness or any other such behaviors consistent with young people. And there is a racial component to this. Can you imagine a teen at, say for example, Beverly Hills High being tossed across the room because they didn't give up their cell and sat quietly in their seat rather than leave a class as asked? We watch movies about teens in America such as, Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, American Pie, etc -- no where in these movies do we see these teens being arrested for being smart asses, talking back, and just acting as kids will - and if we did, it would be perceived as normal.

I'm just trying to figure when and where did some of us decide as a society that kids will be treated differently for the same behaviors based on family income and/or race - and why it has become so normalized to us that we don't even realize that we can't imagine arresting students at say - Beverly Hills High - for the same behaviors that we decry as arrest worthy at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.

Unless or until we understand that such frameworks for looking at our youth is the very definition of racism and classism - and move to change treating kids differently for the same behaviors - then we will continue to have public arguments between those drawing attention to racism and those who do not even recognize when they are engaging in racist belief patterns.

Anonymous

This was an ignorant comment that you just posted. "You know how black students act." No, you don't. The only thing you know is how certain media outlets are portraying African-American men, women, and children. How would you like it if the shoe was on the other foot? How would like to be generalized as a racist, troublemaker or a killer knowing that this is not true? I'll tell you what I know and what I know is you need to stop pointing fingers and generalizing because when you point one finger, three are pointing right back at you.

Anonymous

How do black kids act? Kids act like kids black or white. White kids disrupt class as well you dumb fuck.

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