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

I don't believe that is the case at all.
Kids shouldn't be arrested for disagreeing. No one should.

Anonymous

"We all know how black students act in class" really... REALLY? For the record- I'm white. And a mother of four. And I'm from New York so I'm pretty liberal as fuck. You are an asshole who probably looooooves trump. Every kid acts up. Every one. And you know what a normal consequence is for a student for acting up in school? Lunch detention. In school suspension. Out of school suspension. Those are normal consequences for MINORS IN SCHOOL. So kindly take your hateful self out with the trash you talk.

Anonymous

You're fucking ridiculous.

Anonymous

You are racist. SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP

Discontented Am...

When I read some of these verbal reactions related to very common practices happening to children in schools, an ache crosses the top of my stomach, as my eyes strain themselves to remain closed. One is POOR, One is African American, One is . . . WHAT? Apparently there are bodies of citizen, whose lot has been to be poor, non-Caucasian, . . .though "sometimes Caucasians . . . young adolescents..., in schools, etc. Sending one of these to jail when they have no options to being other than themselves, brings into focus a danger of which we hear little. The parent or significant other suffers, often time, more than the ones incarcerated. I have long been against capital punishment under any circumstance. However, I can see where some could feel homicide to be justified if an individual is responding to such wrongs being visited on a family member. Could I respond in such a manner if the target was a family member? Good Question? If I am serving on a jury panel, where such a defendant has committed such a capital crime? I would take pause to consider a guilty finding. Love Trumps All in some circumstances.

Jenna Owens

They are not saying the kids can act however they want. And NOWHERE did they specify race because I clearly remember them bringing up an instance with a white girl and a Latina so unless everyone is a minority that arguement is clearly invalid. They are saying that arresting kids and treating them the way that dick head did is unacceptable and there are other ways then throwing them in jail to face charges and jail time. I went through all twelve years of school and never once got thrown across the room or slammed to the ground and arrested when I misbehaved yet all my schools still disciplined people that misbehaved. This is complete bullshit.

Anonymous

Maybe that's why so many so called white students come to school shooting the schools up and get away with it their excuse is they are mentally insane.

Heather

Wow, so you honestly believe what you are saying? The planet would be a better place to live if people like you went to bed and never woke up.

Tom

So many things wrong with your comment...not the least of which is that the school discipline issues described in this article fall way outside the preview of the police and courts...the latent racism is also apparent. Leave it to South Carolina to be on the wrong side of history once again.

Anonymous

Not sure where you got the part about disrupting class "without any disciplinary action." Sounds more like the ACLU is pushing for laws that are more clearly defined and disciplinary action that is in better proportion to the crime. In my day you were just sent to the principal's office, not to jail.

As for your "mental disorder" comment, I sense that you may not actually have any accredited training in the area of mental health. Am I wrong?

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