School Climate & Safety

State Laws That Can Lead to School Arrests Targeted for Change

By Evie Blad — January 26, 2016 6 min read
A series of screen grabs from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student last year shows Ben Fields, a sheriff’s deputy, forcibly removing a student from her desk after she refused to leave her high school math class in Columbia, S.C. Fields was fired, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating, and the incident has sparked an effort in South Carolina to change a state law that can lead to students being arrested for behavior that is not considered a crime off school grounds.

When a video of a South Carolina school resource officer’s classroom arrest of an African-American girl spread quickly online last year, most viewers were surprised by the violent nature of the interaction, in which the officer forcefully pulled the girl from her desk and threw her across the room.

But civil rights and student groups said viewers should also be concerned that the classroom conflict that sparked the interaction at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., led to an arrest at all.

After the girl refused to put away her cellphone and subsequently refused to leave the classroom to be disciplined, a school administrator called in the officer. The school resource officer arrested the girl and another classmate, who protested the interaction, on charges of “disrupting a school.” Under that law, South Carolina students are arrested for offenses that aren’t always considered crimes when they are committed off school grounds.

In response to the video, some state lawmakers are working to revise South Carolina’s “disrupting a school” statute, which prohibits acting “in an obnoxious manner” in a school and behavior that interferes with or disturbs “in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college.”

Growing Support

Their efforts come as advocacy groups around the country are pushing for changes to similar laws in other states. While efforts to limit school-based arrests have largely focused on school and district policies and practices, revising broad state laws that are often used to refer students to law enforcement is also important, they argue.

“We’re criminalizing what is a lot of routine student behavior,” said Sarah Hinger, a staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. “What student disruptions rise to the point of being criminal is very much dependent on how school officials and police officers react and interact with that student behavior.”

And, because the laws are open to subjective interpretation, they help contribute to higher rates of arrest for minority students, civil rights groups say.

While black students made up 16 percent of public school enrollment nationwide during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which federal data are available, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subjected to school-related arrests.

Concerns over such racial imbalances and the broad application of some laws have fueled the push for changes around the country.

The ACLU’s Massachusetts chapter, for example, has supported “defueling the school-to-prison pipeline” through a bill that would prohibit student arrests for disturbing a school assembly and disorderly conduct.

Greater national discussions about criminal-justice reform, which have attracted bipartisan support, have helped drive interest in such proposed state law changes, said Jason Langford, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.

That organization launched a push for changes to Virginia’s juvenile-justice laws, including a call to eliminate school-based charges of disorderly conduct, after a 2015 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that the state had the highest rate of school-based arrests in the country. About 16 of every 1,000 Virginia students were referred to police in the 2011-12 school year, nearly three times the national average, the analysis found.

“The knee-jerk reaction of school violence and the sensation of school violence is the starting place of a lot of this,” Langford said. “People assume that schools are dangerous, disorderly places, when the reality is they are the safest places for children in many communities.”

School police issues have been seen as a concern of left-leaning groups in recent years. But a growing body of research about the likelihood of future arrests and social problems for youths who have even one exposure to the justice system has brought support from right-leaning groups for the proposed changes to Virginia’s juvenile-justice statutes.

Last year, a group of conservative organizations, including Right on Crime and the Thomas Jefferson Institute, wrote a report calling for changes to the state’s juvenile-justice system, including an examination of the causes for school-based arrests.

“Some serious incidents in schools certainly merit law-enforcement involvement, but zealous zero-tolerance policies have sometimes resulted in criminalizing playground skirmishes and handcuffing 5th graders for disorderly-conduct violations—issues that were once simply handled by parents and faculty in the principal’s office,” that report said.

South Carolina’s Law

Even with the elimination of broad state laws that lead to school-based arrests, students can still be charged with offenses like assault, Langford added.

In 2014-15, 1,222 juvenile offenses for disturbing schools were referred to family court in South Carolina, according to the state’s juvenile-justice department. Only assault and battery cases led to more juvenile referrals, the agency said in an annual report.

The state legislature is set to consider two bills that would either more specifically detail what could be considered a crime under the disturbing-schools statute or prohibit students from being arrested for the offense.

Similar bills have died in committee in previous legislative sessions. A student also unsuccessfully challenged the law in court, arguing that it violated his First Amendment rights. But the sponsors of current legislation said they hope exposure from the student-arrest video will add momentum to their cause.

“That was so shocking and so unconscionable that it really shook a lot of us to the core,” said Rep. Mia McLeod, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill that would eliminate student arrests for disturbing schools.

McLeod’s bill would still allow outside intruders to be arrested for disturbing schools.

After the high-profile student arrest, the officer, Deputy Ben Fields, was fired following an immediate internal investigation by his employer, the Richland County sheriff’s office.

Leaders of Richland County School District 2 pledged to add more training for staff members about when it is and is not appropriate to involve school resource officers in a discipline situation and to work with the sheriff’s office to develop better standards for screening and training school-based officers.

Most efforts to reduce school-based arrests have typically focused on such district-level work.

The National Association of School Resource Officers has said school-based police should not be involved in routine discipline of students. The organization urges schools to draft written agreements with police agencies that detail how their officers should interact with students.

Supporters of bills like those in South Carolina say they dovetail with those types of district undertakings.

The South Carolina School Boards Association doesn’t have a position on the bills, said Debbie Elmore, the organization’s director of government relations.

But the group urges caution against too narrowly defining what constitutes a school disturbance because administrators must deal with many student-behavior situations that lawmakers may not anticipate, she said.

“The law as it stands now is very broad, and it’s almost open to individual interpretation,” Elmore said. “But when you try to write it so prescriptively, you leave out some important things that you just might not think of.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Laws That Lead to School Arrests Targeted for Change in Some States

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