South Carolina school resource officers arrest more than 1,200 students a year – some as young as seven and most of them black – on the questionable charge of “disturbing schools,” prompting the ACLU to file a lawsuit last week.
The lawsuit was filed the day after the Richland County Sheriff’s Department signed an agreement with the United States Department of Justice, settling a civil rights investigation into the agency’s practice of arresting students for infractions that should be handled by school administrators.
The most prominent arrest made by the agency involved a deputy known as “Officer Slam” who was caught on video brutalizing a 16-year-old student in a high school classroom, yanking her out of her desk and body slamming her to the ground before pouncing on her and handcuffing her.
Niya Kenny, the 18-year-old student who recorded the incident and protested the deputy’s actions, was also arrested on the same charge. Charges against Kenny and the 16-year-old girl whose name has not been released are still pending.
Kenny is listed as the main plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit, but several other students are listed as well.
The 16-year-old student who was attacked by the deputy is not listed in the lawsuit. And neither is Ben Fields, the Richland County sheriff’s deputy who was fired two weeks after the incident.
But Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott is listed along with South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and various other police chiefs and sheriffs.
At the time of the October 26, 2015 incident, Lott’s agency was already under investigation by the United States Department of Justice because his officers had developed a reputation for arresting a high number of students on the charge of disturbing schools.
In fact, one month before Fields showed the world why they called him Officer Slam, USDOJ investigators traveled to Richland County and interviewed several deputies and school administrators while visiting several schools.
However, the visit by federal investigators did not serve as a deterrent to deputy Fields when he attacked the student for refusing to leave the classroom after she refused to put her phone away.
Even after the incident, Fields was adorned with support from the authoritarian segment of the United States who believed the 16-year-old girl deserved to be abused for breaking the rules.
And even after Fields was fired, 100 students staged a walkout from the school – which is also against the rules – to protest his termination, proving that Stockholm Syndrome is alive and well in Spring Valley High School. None of those students who walked out of class were charged with disturbing schools.
The settlement with the USDOJ, which can be read here, basically requires that deputies working in schools not dole out punishment based on race, ethnicity or disability, which is what apparently sparked the USDOJ investigation in May 2015.
Deputies will also be forbidden from handling basic school disciplinary issues that can and should be handled by school administrators. If anything, deputies should try to deescalate situations instead of escalate them.
In essence, deputies will no longer be allowed to arrest students on the charge of “disturbing schools” unless the student is posing a “serious, real and immediate threat to the safety of the school and its community.”
The disturbing schools statute is actually geared towards people who are not students but have come on campus to interact with students in one way or another. It was meant to protect students, not criminalize them.
In fact, the statute originally pertained to “any school or college in the State attended by women or girls” when it was enacted in 1919, so it was obviously meant to protect female students from horny men.
It was amended in 1968 to apply to any school in order to arrest protesters on campus during that turbulent year.
Now S.C. Code § 16-17-420(B) reads as follows:
(A) It shall be unlawful:
(1) for any person wilfully or unnecessarily (a) to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college in this State, (b) to loiter about such school or college premises or (c) to act in an obnoxious manner thereon; or
(2) for any person to (a) enter upon any such school or college premises or (b) loiter around the premises, except on business, without the permission of the principal or president in charge.
(B) Any person violating any of the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction thereof, shall pay a fine of not more than one thousand dollars or be imprisoned in the county jail for not more than ninety days.
But somewhere along the line, it started getting used for students who cut up in class.
The ACLU’s lawsuit, which can be read here, states that black students were four times as likely to be arrested on his charge than white students, sucking them into what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Students with development disabilities are also more likely to be arrested on this charge for offenses that would traditionally be handled by school administrators through detentions or other disciplinary actions.
Once a student is forced into the legal system, it can lead to a cascade of other problems, including dropping out of school, which increases the chances of returning to jail as an adult.
It is not clear at this time if Fields has been hired at a different law enforcement agency, but he comes with plenty of baggage. At the time of the viral incident, he had already been sued twice.
A third lawsuit has since been filed by a woman who says she was unlawfully arrested by Fields because she allowed her son’s 17-year-old girlfriend to live at her house when the girl was having problems at her own home.
The woman, a preschool teacher who spent the night in jail on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, was cleared of all charges when a grand jury refused to indict.
“The grand jury didn’t even find the bare minimum standard of probable cause in the arrest against my client,” the woman’s attorney told The State.