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ACLU, Arrested Students Sue Over South Carolina's 'Disturbing Schools' Law

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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.

A group of students who've been charged under South Carolina's "disturbing a school" law filed a lawsuit with backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that the law is overly broad and leads to unnecessarily harsh discipline in the state's public schools.

The suit comes the same week the South Carolina Board of Education gave tentative approval to new regulations for school-based police officers, with some academics and child advocacy groups arguing the rules don't go far enough.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, Niya Kenny, was arrested under the state law after she filmed a classmate's violent arrest in math class nearly a year ago. That video later went viral online, and the girl in the video was also charged with disturbing a school.

As I wrote in January:

"The school resource officer arrested the girl and another classmate, who protested the interaction, on charges of disturbing 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 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."

The law, the ACLU argues in the suit, "sweeps within the purview of criminal law and the court system a broad swath of adolescent behavior" and "violates fundamental concepts of fairness and the most basic tenets of due process." From the lawsuit:

"By broadly labeling as criminal any 'interference,' or 'disturbance' of a school, any act of 'loitering' and any 'obnoxious' action, the Disturbing Schools statute creates an impossible standard for school children to follow and for police to enforce with consistency and fairness. The Disturbing Schools statute also chills the ability of students to speak out against abuses and to participate in conversations about policing of their own classrooms and campuses.

South Carolina Code § 16-17-420 was enacted almost 100 years ago and there is no indication that it was intended to apply, or was applied at the time, to students rightfully attending their own school. More recently, however, the law's broad terms have been invoked to draw thousands of adolescents into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The Disturbing School charge is consistently among the leading sources of referrals to the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice."

The state's education board gave early approval this week to some regulations that would outline what forms of student behavior warrant police contact, but some commenters argue those rules are still too vague and subjective.

Kenny is joined by other plaintiffs, including a girl's mentorship organization and several students who've faced criminal charges under the disturbing schools law.

Defendents are a variety of state and local officials, including South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and law enforcement officials in the jurisdictions where the students were arrested.

The suit asks the court to declare the law unconstitutional. 

The legal filing came the same day the Richland County Sheriff's Office, which employed the deputy who arrested Kenny, finalized an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to weed out bias by updating its policies and training for school-based officers.

The ACLU included this video in a press release about the lawsuit.

Photo: 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, and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the incident. --AP Photos

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