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Back to school: The thin blue line between discipline and crime

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A stick figure drawing on a blackboard led three students at Waccamaw Middle School to be charged last year with “disturbing school.” It showed a teacher at his car. “Boom” was written over the car. A drawing of six students with smiling faces was titled “Victory.”

In a suit filed in Federal District Court in Charleston last week, the American Civil Liberties Union says the state law on disturbing school is unconstitutional. It also asks the court to prevent the state from enforcing the “disorderly conduct” statute against elementary and secondary school students.

The suit stems from an incident at Spring Valley High School in Columbia last October where a school resource officer pulled a student out of her chair and arrested her during class. Niya Kenny, a classmate and one of five plaintiffs in the suit, took a video and yelled at the officer. She was also arrested and charged with disturbing school.

“The types of incidents that lead to disturbing schools and disorderly conduct charges cannot be distinguished by any objective standard from the types of behaviors school regularly address without resort to the criminal justice system,” the ACLU says in the suit.

In Georgetown County schools, officials say the difference between school discipline and criminal charges is decided case-by-case by principals and school resource officers. “Both have input,” Sheriff Lane Cribb said.

A bill that failed to pass the state legislature this year would have made the disturbing schools statute applicable only to people who aren’t students. “There are some problems with that,” said Alan Walters, the safety director for Georgetown County Schools. He is also the Town Court judge for Pawleys Island and a former law enforcement officer. “The thing to me that was important was, in talking to the solicitor’s office, juveniles will plead to it as a lesser offense,” Walters said. “You could be taking away something that would help people.”

The ACLU disagrees. It says disturbing school and disorderly conduct charges are “among the leading reasons young people enter the juvenile justice system.” And black students are almost four times more likely to be charged with disturbing school than white students, the suit claims.

It names Attorney General Alan Wilson and law enforcement officials in Charleston, Richland and Greenville counties as defendants. Along with having the disturbing school law declared unconstitutional, it wants records of those arrested under the statutes expunged.

The suit also reflects the changing role of school resource officers. The program began in the 1980s as a drug-use prevention strategy. Officers taught classes. Walters remembers getting grants through the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

“It started off trying to be a program where they were part of the classes,” Cribb said. “It’s changed to more security.”

He didn’t have numbers readily available for the number of disturbing school arrests deputies have made. Walters said he saw one report that put the number at 14 last year. “We’ve never had a problem with that,” Cribb said.

“Our SROs understand that they’re not there to enforce discipline,” Walters said. “We’ve gone into that in great detail.”

But the line can be vague. The district’s behavior policy lists tardiness as “disorderly conduct,” though not in the legal sense, Walters said. The district has written new policies to clarify what is a discipline problem and what is criminal behavior, but it is waiting for the state Department of Education to revise its policies and that will require approval from the legislature, he said.

“It always takes our state legislature two, three, four years to catch up,” School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said. But he acknowledged that part of the problem is that the issues have become more complex, not like the days when running in the hall and chewing gum were the focus of school discipline. The Georgetown County School District spends about $500,000 a year for security during the school day and at extracurricular activities. That’s in addition to several million dollars spent to “harden” schools from possible attacks.

School resource officers are here to stay, Cribb said. “I don’t think we would ever get rid of them.”

Deciding whether behavior is a discipline matter or a criminal matter is done by the resource officers and the school principals. “It’s usually a joint decision,” Walters said.

The district gets police incident reports, but he said it doesn’t find out what happens to the case. He doesn’t know what happened to the three Waccamaw Middle students charged last year. He said typically the solicitor’s office will resolve such cases before going to court.

In challenging the disturbing schools statute, the ACLU points to the wide range of policies around the state. Walters said that only highlights that the decisions comes down to the community standard. And he noted that there are other statutes that could apply to some forms of behavior, such as “breach of peace.”

“If they disturb the schools, we just charge them with the statute that’s provided,” Cribb said. “Sometimes it might be better if it’s just discipline.”

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