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South Carolina Moves to Limit Role of School Police After Violent Student Arrest

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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.

The South Carolina board of education gave tentative approval Tuesday to standards that will define and limit the role of police working in schools, minimizing their role in routine disciplinary matters.

The board also gave early approval to regulations that would more clearly define what forms of student disruption warrant a law enforcement response under the state's controversial "disrupting a school" law.

The policies come at the recommendation of a state task force that was assembled after a video of a violent arrest of a teen girl drew widespread criticism as it spread on the internet last year. The girl, a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., was dragged from her desk by a school resource officer  after she refused to follow a teacher's instructions to put away her cell phone.

Some who submitted comments to the state board argued that the policies don't go far enough.

Limiting the Role of School Resource Officers

"As sworn law enforcement officials, the school resource officers should only be called when a student's behavior has exceeded the level of disruptive conduct, as determined by school administration, based on district policy, or the student is engaging or has engaged in criminal conduct (see Regulation 43- 279 for levels of disruptive and criminal conduct)," the proposed school police policy says. "A school resource officer should be the first line of contact for local law enforcement to ensure that the matter is resolved expeditiously to decrease significant interruption to the learning process." 

The role and expectations of school resource officers currently varies among districts, says the policy, which also requires schools to create agreements outlining the responsibilities of law enforcement officers before placing them in their schools.

The other regulation seeks to clarify a state law that critics have highlighted as a contributor to unnecessary student arrests and overly punitive school environments. As I wrote in January:

"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." ...

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."

State lawmakers have tried and failed to revise or replace the "disrupting a school" law in the past. Similar efforts have also failed in other states.

The new policy in South Carolina is designed to "promote more consistent discipline practices statewide by reducing the amount of subjectivity involved in discipline decisions." It sets three levels of misconduct, ranging from "behavioral" issues like tardiness at Level I to "disruptive" behaviors, like fighting or abusive language to staff, at Level II, and criminal issues, like assault and major vandalism, at Level III.

"Suggested consequences within the Level I misconduct category range from verbal reprimand to detention. Level II misconduct includes sanctions ranging from temporary removal from class to expulsion, while Level III misconduct includes sanctions ranging from out-of-school suspension to appropriate action within the criminal justice system." A student who commits a Level II offense may be referred to an outside agency, like law enforcement, the policy says. 

Some scholars and children's advocates who submitted comment on the policy argue that it didn't go far enough and still leaves loopholes for overly punitive school discipline.

"Unfortunately, the proposed regulations miss a significant opportunity to more clearly separate school discipline from law enforcement," Josh Gupta-Kagan, a University of South Carolina law professor, wrote to the state board. "Worse, the proposed regulations would codify (I believe unintentionally) a problematic policy of turning every school disturbance into a matter for law enforcement." 

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


Further reading about school police and school resource officers: 

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