In South Carolina and seven other states, “disturbing schools” can be a criminal misdemeanor punished by fines or jail time.
So when a teacher and administrator at Spring Valley High School were faced with what they described as a student disrupting class, they turned to law enforcement – the school’s resource officer, Deputy Ben Fields.
Video captured Fields violently removing the girl from her desk. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his actions were against the department’s training and policies, and the FBI launched a civil rights investigation. An attorney for Fields said Wednesday evening that he had acted professionally and within the law.
A second student who said she had spoken up against Fields was also arrested.
“I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl,” Niya Kenny told WLTX. “A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like ‘no way, no way.’ You can’t do nothing like that to a little girl.”
Under South Carolina’s disturbing schools law, it’s illegal to willfully or unnecessarily interfere with or disturb students or teachers, as well as loiter or trespass on campus, or “act in an obnoxious manner” on school grounds.
It’s a law that’s much too broad and leads to the arrest of too many students, state Rep. Todd Rutherford told WLTX. Rutherford said he is representing the 16-year-old girl, who he added was traumatized as well as physically injured from the incident, the New York Daily News reported.
“The legislature needs to take action, and make sure our students are not the targets of rogue police officers called “Officer Slam” who are going to walk in and brutalize them at a moment’s notice,” Rutherford told WLTX. “School resource officers are there to protect the children from outsiders. To protect the children from threats that involve guns and knives.”
The South Carolina legislature is currently not in session, and Rep. Rutherford was not immediately available for comment on whether he would introduce changes to the disturbing schools law.
Around the turn of the last century, disturbing school laws appeared in states’ codes along with laws to protect worship services or public meetings. In several states, they were rewritten to clarify they applied only to non-students — student discipline would fall instead under the schools’ administration.
The South Carolina legislature is currently not in session. Rep. Rutherford was not immediately available for comment on whether he would introduce changes to the disturbing schools law.
The ACLU of South Carolina has called it a law that discriminates against students of color.
“We call on South Carolina educators and officials to work to end the discriminatory discipline policies that exist in our schools — including zero tolerance laws like ‘disturbing schools’ and corporal punishment,” the group said.
Though the law has come under fire, it remains on the books — even passing one challenge to the state Supreme Court. In 2006, South Carolina’s Supreme Court considered a case involving a student who said the law unfairly criminalized a wide variety of behavior — including some that should be protected by the First Amendment.
First Amendment rights are protected in schools, the court noted, but students may still not infringe on their classmates’ right to an education. Pointing to a previous decision that described the school environment as “fragile by [its] nature,” the court said that it’s necessary for students and teachers to cooperate and show a “certain level of conduct.”
“Clearly the State has a legitimate interest in maintaining the integrity of its education system. This objective is necessarily achieved in part by classroom discipline.”
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