Go Directly to Jail: Typical Teens Face Police Instead of Principals

Laws that criminalize students’ misbehavior funnel them into the criminal justice system.
(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)
Oct 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

What started as a typical high school math class ended with two misdemeanor arrests in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday. Viral video footage shows a female student at her desk being flipped over and slammed to the ground by a school resource officer, who drags her to the classroom door before arresting her. A fellow student was so upset that she began crying and yelling—she was arrested too.

Both girls were charged with misdemeanors under the Disturbing Schools Law for South Carolina, a statute that allows school resource officers to arrest students who disturb or interfere with the school environment. Advocates say the law has been applied to criminalize kids who violate the adage that children should be seen and not heard.

“[The law] is so vague and broad that it lends itself to subjective and arbitrary application,” Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, told TakePart. “It was initially passed because of concerns about outside intruders and is now being used against kids.”

The Disturbing Schools Law was introduced in the 1970s in reaction to agitation from antiwar organizers on college campuses during the Vietnam War, according to Mishi Faruqee, a juvenile justice reform advocate who has been working with Middleton to have the law repealed.

“The law has since been used to allow school resource officers in middle and high schools to arrest thousands of mostly African American students,” Faruqee told TakePart. “It is one of the top charges against youth in South Carolina’s juvenile justice system.”

Causing a disturbance in school is the third-most-frequent juvenile offense referred to the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, after assault and battery and shoplifting. While one-third of South Carolina’s student population is black, black youths made up 66 percent of admissions to the juvenile justice system in 2013 and 2014.

Faruqee says South Carolina’s law is the most egregious example of laws that effectively funnel people charged with disruptive classroom behavior into the criminal justice system. Several other states have laws that criminalize student misbehavior in the classroom, but the extent to which they are enforced varies. Since its implementation, the “disturbing a lawful assembly” law in Massachusetts has repeatedly been used to arrest students who act out. A 2012 report on the criminalization of school discipline in Massachusetts cites arrests of students for bringing phones to school, swearing at resource officers, and failing to identify themselves that took place between 2009 and 2012. In South Dakota, a “disturbance of school” law has similarly been applied to emotionally disturbed children and children of color.

Middleton noted that these laws disproportionately affect children of color and children with disabilities. Students who are arrested at school are three times more likely to drop out than those who aren’t, according to the ACLU, and students who drop out are eight times more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system. These numbers illustrate why it’s critical to avoid a criminal justice response to disruptive behavior.

“Too often, these teachers in these schools are calling on the cops because they have a disruptive student in the classroom,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at a press conference on Wednesday. “This is not a cop’s job.”

“We don’t need to arrest these students,” Lott continued. “We need to keep them in schools.”