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Gov. McMaster signs 'disturbing schools law'

Amended bill protects students from criminal charges for vague interpretations

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 5/22/18

Lawmakers and school officials in Sumter County are applauding an amended law that takes aim at what they say was an overly broad school safety bill that ended up negatively impacting students involved in minor disciplinary infractions.

Gov. …

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Gov. McMaster signs 'disturbing schools law'

Amended bill protects students from criminal charges for vague interpretations

Posted

Lawmakers and school officials in Sumter County are applauding an amended law that takes aim at what they say was an overly broad school safety bill that ended up negatively impacting students involved in minor disciplinary infractions.

Gov. Henry McMaster signed Senate Bill 131, summarized as the disturbing schools bill, on May 17 after receiving a 33-8 vote in the state Senate in April 2017 and a 102-2 vote in the state House on May 9.

"It had already been deemed by one court to be overly broad and not constitutional," said state Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, who said he presented and strongly supported the bill when it passed through the criminal laws subcommittee. The District 51 representative is on the Judiciary Committee.

All seven members of the Sumter County legislative delegation voted in favor of the change.

Before, under the bill, students could be arrested and charged with disturbing schools for something as small as talking back to a teacher, being loud or getting in a fight, Weeks said.

The vagueness of the bill was brought to light in 2015 after a video circulated on social media of a deputy at Spring Valley High School in Columbia forcibly removing a student from her chair and throwing her to the ground after she refused to leave class. The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina filed a lawsuit in response.

After an initial dismissal in district court, Fourth Circuit Appeals Court Judge Albert Diaz sent the case back to a lower court.

Under the amendment passed this month, which was introduced in January 2017 by state Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, the law now distinguishes between students and non-students and only applies to non-students.

"There's been numerous situations where it had been applied differently in different school districts," Weeks said. "Any little thing the student did could be interpreted as being in violation of the law."

A non-student is defined in the new law as anyone who is not enrolled in the school or college, including those who are suspended or have been expelled. Non-students cannot "willfully interfere with, disrupt or disturb the normal operations" of the school, which includes entering the campus without permission, loitering, initiating a fight, being "loud or boisterous," threatening physical harm or threatening use of deadly force.

Weeks said this law has nothing to do with school shootings and that anyone who threatens or commits violence on a school campus can still be held accountable by the law.

The law states students of a school or college cannot "make threats to take the life or to inflict bodily harm upon another by using any form of communication whatsoever."

Sumter School District Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm said she is supportive of the amendment because, while the law was meant to keep schools safe from disturbances caused by adults coming into the school, it started being applied to students.

"The distinctions between student behavior that was criminal and should be handled by law enforcement got mixed up with what should have been routine school discipline matters handled by school administrators," Hamm said. "Unfortunately, when the disturbing schools law was sometimes used to address minor infractions, students ended up with criminal records after being charged with criminal offenses that were not really criminal."

Hamm said she does not anticipate the change in this law having an impact on overall school safety "concerns like assault, violence, criminal threats, weapons, robbery, etc.," because those actions are covered by other laws and "can be enforced by officers in our schools without the disturbing schools law."

"In cases of routine discipline incidents," she said, "we, as educators, need to handle those, and school administrators are trained and ready to handle them."