Fourth Circuit Rules Disturbing Schools Lawsuit Can Go Forward

A federal appeals court held that students have a valid claim that South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law chills their First Amendment right to freedom of expression and puts their right to due process at risk.

Several students – ranging from middle school to college – filed a lawsuit in SC claiming the statute is too vague and that students have no way of knowing what would constitute a violation (I agree).

The complaint was dismissed by the district court, but the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that decision and sent the case back, allowing the lawsuit to go forward.

The 4th Circuit also found that the students have a valid claim that the law is disproportionately applied to students who are black and/or disabled.

How Vague Is SC’s Disturbing Schools Statute?

According to the statute, it is illegal for anyone to “interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college.”

Well, I’ve got to hand it to the students and the appeals court – that is pretty vague. It seems like school officials or police could use a law that vague to bring charges against any student for doing almost anything they don’t like.

In the lawsuit, the students claim that both statutes criminalize ordinary juvenile behavior that schools are capable of handling without handcuffing children. For example:

  • Cursing;
  • Not following directions;
  • Physical fights that don’t result in injury; and
  • Expressing concerns about police conduct.

Guilty of Documenting A Crime Committed by A Cop?

Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were charged with disturbing schools because they videotaped an assault on a fellow student by a law enforcement officer.

In 2015, a sheriff’s deputy stationed at Spring Valley High School in Richland County arrested a student because she wouldn’t give up her cell phone. The deputy grabbed the teen in a headlock, jerked her out of her seat, dragged her across the floor, and threw her across the room before handcuffing her.

The student was charged with disturbing schools – and so were her classmates who filmed the incident. This is a perfect example of why the law is too vague – how can it possibly be criminal for a student to document a disturbing event (if you want to see how disturbing it was, check out the video in the link above) that made them feel threatened?

Are the Disturbing Schools and Disorderly Conduct Laws Disproportionately Used Against Minorities?

In remanding the case back to district court, the appeals court found that the students have a valid claim that the disturbing schools law is applied disproportionately to students who are black or disabled. Disproportionate punishment of black children is a nationwide problem, and laws like South Carolina’s disturbing schools statute exacerbate the problem.

It’s worth noting that all the students mentioned above – the one who was assaulted by the officer and the two who filmed the assault – are black.

If the anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, check out these statistics:

  • Black students are 3.5 times more likely than their white peers to be expelled or suspended, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights;
  • African-American children make up 18 percent of students, but almost half of students who are suspended more than once are black;
  • Twenty-five percent of African-American children who have disabilities have been suspended at least once; while only one in 11 white students with disabilities have been suspended multiple times.

The students’ lawsuit and this Fourth Circuit decision are a step in the right direction to address institutional racism in South Carolina’s schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the disturbing schools law is the number one reason South Carolina children get involved with the criminal justice system. And statistics show that, once a child is involved with police, they are more likely be in and out of trouble as adults.

Juvenile Criminal Defense Lawyer in Columbia, Myrtle Beach, and Lexington, SC

Criminal defense and juvenile criminal defense attorney Lacey Thompson only accepts SC criminal defense cases in the Columbia, Lexington, Conway, and Myrtle Beach SC areas. Call at 843-444-6122 or fill out our online contact form if you have questions or to set up a free initial consultation.


One Response to “Fourth Circuit Rules Disturbing Schools Lawsuit Can Go Forward

  • A SC Statehouse attorney told me once that a SC legislator brought him a proposed law and asked him to check it to see if it was Constitutional.

    Why aren’t ALL proposed laws put through that process???

    Do our legislators even know and understand the Constitution(s)? What the hell do we pay them for?

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