ACLU Challenges S.C. ‘Disturbing Schools’ Law

The group says the law is imprecise and disproportionately targets black students.

The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit challenging South Carolina for making it a crime for students to “disturb” or act obnoxiously at school.

The ACLU found that hundreds of students – as young as 7 years old – are being charged under a far-reaching and nebulous statute for behaviors like loitering, cursing, or undefined “obnoxious” actions on school grounds. Additionally, the ACLU claims the statute has a chilling effect on students who speak out against policing abuses within the schools. Black students are nearly four times as likely to be targeted under the law.

In addition to the “disturbing schools” statute, the ACLU is challenging a similarly vague “disorderly conduct” law, which prohibits conducting oneself in a “disorderly or boisterous manner.”

“Students are being channeled into the criminal justice system for regular adolescent behavior that schools have dealt with for generations. This shift toward criminalization is hurting young people, particularly students of color,” says ACLU attorney Sarah Hinger.

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Plaintiff Niya Kenny, 18, is a former student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia. As a student last October, she witnessed a violent, headline-grabbing altercation in her classroom when a school resource officer flipped a classmate over in her desk and dragged her across the room.

Kenny, who is African-American, spoke up against the officer’s actions, recounting, “I was in disbelief and I started praying out loud. I said, ‘Isn’t anyone going to help her?'” Kenny was in turn arrested and hauled off to a detention center.

“After my experience, I felt humiliated and fearful of returning to school. I felt a lot of anxiety. It was a very difficult decision, but I decided not to return to Spring Valley High School,” said Kenny, who withdrew from school and entered a G.E.D. program.

Other plaintiffs include:

  • Taurean Nesmith, 21, an African-American student at Benedict College in Columbia, who was arrested because he criticized a police officer for racial profiling during the stop of a fellow student.
  • S.P., 15, a student with behavioral and emotional disabilities who, as a freshman in Greenville County, was charged with a crime after failing to comply with instructions to leave the library and cursing at a student who was making fun of her.
  • D.S., 17, an African-American student from Charleston for whom a charge of disturbing schools after a minor physical altercation led her into the adult criminal justice system and the risk of detention for inability to pay fines and fees.
  • Girls Rock/Charleston, a nonprofit organization that provides mentorship, music and arts education, and leadership development to young people. Girls Rock operates an afterschool program serving at-risk youth and youth who have been involved in the criminal justice system.

The ACLU is challenging the statutes for violating the U.S. Constitution’s due process protections. The complaint, Kenny v. Wilson, was filed in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina/Charleston Division.

“The bottom line is that the state has imposed an impossible standard for schoolchildren to follow and for police to enforce with any consistency or fairness,” said Shaundra Scott, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.

Read the full complaint here.

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