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Justice Department on S.C. Suit: Broad Laws Fuel 'School-to-Prison Pipeline'

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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 U.S. Department of Justice says two South Carolina laws that are frequently used to arrest students at school may be overly vague and subjectively applied, contributing to the "school-to-prison pipeline" in the state.

The federal agency invoked the phrase—a term advocacy groups use to refer to harsh school discipline that disproportionately affects students of color—in a legal filing in support of a group of students who've challenged the state's "disturbing schools" and disorderly conduct laws in court. 

The lead plaintiff in the suit, Niya Kenny, was arrested under the disturbing schools 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. Plaintiffs, who seek class-action status, assert that the laws are disproportionately used to arrest black students, often for behaviors they say should be handled through routine school discipline.

In its statement of interest in the case, the Justice Department asserts that "significant racial disparities in the enforcement of a criminal statute may indicate that the statute is unconstitutionally vague," a violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

"The criminalization of everyday and ordinary childhood behavior under imprecise statutes can have disastrous and discriminatory consequences," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, in a statement. "Laws must provide officers with sufficient guidance to distinguish between innocent and delinquent conduct and ensure that all children receive the full protections of our Constitution. We must remain vigilant to ensure law enforcement practices do not unnecessarily remove children from the classroom and place them in a pipeline to prison."

South Carolina's state education board gave approval in the fall regulations that outline what forms of student behavior warrant police contact, but some commenters argued those rules are still too vague and subjective.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 8.

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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