Federal District Court Strikes Down “Disturbing Schools” Law Previously Used to Criminalize Students

October 8, 2021 4:30 pm

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — A district court in South Carolina today handed down a victory for students’ rights by preventing schools and law enforcement from criminalizing elementary and secondary school students under the state’s disorderly conduct law. The law allowed students in school to be criminally charged for normal adolescent behaviors, including cursing, or undefined “disorder” or “boisterousness” behavior at school.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of South Carolina filed a lawsuit, Kenny v. Wilson, in 2016 on behalf of Niya Kenny and other student plaintiffs challenging this law and a similarly vague “disturbing schools” law, which prohibited undefined “disturbing” or “obnoxious” conduct or loitering on or around schools. At Spring Valley High School in Columbia, Kenny was arrested under the challenged laws and taken to a detention center because she had cried out after she saw a school resource officer picking up a classmate and throwing her to the ground. With the court’s order, law enforcement and schools can no longer use these laws to criminalize and charge students.

“The court recognized that broadly criminalizing students as a means to manage their behavior is not only bad policy, it also violates their constitutional rights,” said Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “The court has sent a clear message: Rather than funnel children into the school-to-prison pipeline over minor rule breaking and protected First amendment activities, schools must recognize and protect students’ rights.”

As the court found, over 5,000 young people in South Carolina — disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities — were arrested for disorderly conduct between the 2015-16 and 2019-20 school years, and over 70 percent of those arrests occurred in schools. Additionally, Black students across the state were more than six times as likely as white classmates to be targeted under the law and arrested for being “disorderly” or “boisterous.” Students with disabilities were also charged under the vague law rather than receiving support services.

A growing body of research documents the negative impacts of punitive discipline and policing in schools — both for the students policed and for the broader school community.

“The court’s ruling today strikes an important blow against the school-to-prison pipeline in South Carolina,” said Allen Chaney, legal director at the ACLU of South Carolina. “Moving forward, the ACLU will continue to fight against draconian school policing models and advocate for equitable and evidence-based efforts to keep South Carolina schools safe and free.”

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