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Law against “disorderly conduct” in schools led to unfair arrests of students, judge says

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A federal judge sided with South Carolina students who argued that the widely drafted state laws against “disorderly conduct” and “disruptive schools” allowed police to arrest and cite individuals. students for routine misconduct.

The subjective and inconsistent application of these two laws has led to higher discipline rates for black students for issues such as “loud and noisy behavior,” which school rules generally classify as low-level offenses. District Judge Margaret B. Seymour said Friday.

His order addressed themes underlying the ongoing national debates over disproportionately high rates of discipline for students of color and students with disabilities, school policing, and the drafting of state school laws and policies that guarantee the equity.

Across the country, student activists have pushed schools to narrow bans on things like “defiance” to ensure they are enforced consistently and fairly. And other states have looked at how laws that prohibit things like disruptive behavior in public places can be misused in school hallways.

To be fair, policies must be interpreted in a clear and transparent manner by school employees, law enforcement and students, racial justice advocates said.

“These laws allow police officers to turn even the most minor offense into a criminal offense,” said Peggy Nicholson, the supervising lawyer at Duke University’s Children’s Law Clinic, who opposed the use of the law. on North Carolina’s disorderly conduct in schools.

“Obtain some pressure in the courts on limiting the use of [broad state laws] is really encouraging, ”she said. “Ideally, legislatures are already paying attention and are starting to take action before the courts get involved. “

Judge Seymour ordered South Carolina not to enforce the disorderly behavior law against students in K-12 schools. And she ordered the state not to keep records of students who had been cited for “disrupting schools.” Since the case began, South Carolina lawmakers have amended this law so that it does not apply to current students. But those who had previously been arrested or cited for disruptive crimes in schools argued that the situations had affected their educational and life trajectories.

Judge Seymour rendered his ruling after a law enforcement officer testified that two school resource officers may come to different conclusions about student behavior which constituted a disorderly conduct offense that could be subject to suspicion. ‘an arrest.

“The fact that schools statewide are classifying as minor the same behavior that an officer might charge as criminal highlights the lack of notice that the law provides for prohibited behavior,” she wrote. “The overlap also highlights the potential for arbitrary application when the decision to charge a student is left to the discretion of an individual officer.”

“I was the only one to speak, to protest against the situation”

The case was first brought by Niya Kenny, a student from South Carolina who was arrested under the state’s broad “disturbing schools” law in 2015 after recording the violent arrest of her classmate during a math class at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina.

A school sheriff’s deputy dragged her classmate from his office after he was called to class when she refused to hand over her cell phone to a teacher, and Kenny told her in a voice strong to stop. Video of the incident on the students’ cellphones quickly spread online, sparking a conversation about overly punitive school discipline.

“I was the only one really talking about the situation, the only one,” Kenny told Education Week in an interview in 2017.. “Two other adult men were in the classroom and I was the only one protesting the situation. “

Kenny was dismissed as a plaintiff after the court determined the state law change had satisfied his demands. But other students who had been arrested for disorderly conduct continued with the case. These include an African-American high school student who was quoted after classmates claimed on social media that he threatened to “shoot the school”, which he denied. A black complainant with an intellectual disability has been accused of disturbing schools after a classmate punched her in the hallway of her school. A white student with a mood disorder was arrested after verbally confronting classmates who bullied her and made fun of her weight.

The state argued that “the invalidation of the disorderly conduct law would remove a law enforcement tool to deal with disruptive students and fighters who yell at staff and visitors, beat up other students, flee staff, knock over furniture, knock on doors, push back against staff and law enforcement.

But the current law is written and enforced in a sufficiently broad and unpredictable way that it can be seen as a violation of students’ due process rights, Judge Seymour wrote.

” The driving [the state] The references are serious in nature, as is the state’s responsibility to protect the children and adults who inhabit its schools, ”the ruling said. “However, the state has a constitutional responsibility to draft a law that accurately addresses the concerns [it] increases.

In the 2014-2015 school year in Charleston, black students were about six and a half times more likely to be fired for disturbing schools than their white classmates, the court wrote.

Between August 3, 2015 and July 30, 2020, law enforcement received 5,120 referrals of young people for disorderly conduct statewide, 73% of them for incidents at school, the court found. Black children and adolescents made up about 75 percent of those referrals, although they only make up about 30 percent of the population aged 5 to 17.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which helped represent the students in this case, celebrated the court ruling as a victory for fairer academic discipline.

“The court sent a clear message: rather than channeling children through the school-to-prison pipeline for minor violations of the rules and protected activities of the First Amendment, schools must recognize and protect the rights of students.” , said a statement from Sarah Hinger, senior executive. ACLU Racial Justice Program lawyer.

There are dozens of similar laws in other states

Activists across the country have targeted persistent trends of racial inequality and a sense that routine discipline is too often managed by law enforcement. While adding funds for school policing is often raised in response to shootings and other security concerns, the presence of officers in schools can lead to overly punitive responses to non-violent student behavior, argue. -they.

At the same time, some conservative lawmakers and school leaders have argued that efforts to curb disciplinary policies at school have left them with fewer tools to tackle bad student behavior.

The Biden administration is committed to exploring fairness in school discipline and is collecting commentary on the issue.

South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law was one of the most widely used in the country before it was amended in 2018, but there are dozens of laws in other states that can be widely enforced as catch-all punishments for student misconduct in schools. In some places, students are also arrested under general laws against disturbing the peace.

In 2019, for example, an 11-year-old boy from Florida was arrested under the state’s educational disturbance law. after refusing to come forward for the pledge of allegiance and responded to a substitute teacher who ordered him to recite it.

In 2013, Texas lawmakers changed state law to ban quotations from students in school for things like chewing gum and responding to teachers.

Nicholson, in Duke, said juvenile justice advocates in other states have looked for ways to challenge state laws in court, and they have encouraged lawmakers to target more narrowly the reasons why students can be arrested at school.

In North Carolina, that means meeting with defense attorneys to encourage them to raise concerns about constitutionality and whether laws are being applied consistently during initial court hearings regarding student offenses.

The South Carolina decision is “a great model for other states like us that continue to see students arrested at school for relatively minor incidents,” Nicholson said.