News / World

Feds: SC law compounds 'school-to-prison pipeline' problem

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Federal authorities have weighed in on a lawsuit challenging South Carolina's "disturbing schools" law, arguing that the vague statute ends up disproportionately landing minority students and those with disabilities in juvenile jails.

The filing in federal court this week is connected to a controversial 2015 cellphone video of a South Carolina high school student being snatched from her desk by a sheriff's deputy, flipped backward and tossed across a classroom. The images prompted the deputy's firing, sparked national outrage over the use of force on students, and led to a debate on deputies' roles in the classroom.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Justice Department filed what's called a statement of interest in the American Civil Liberties Union's challenge of the law. In a statement announcing the filing, Civil Rights Division chief Vanita Gupta wrote that the arbitrary enforcement of such vague statutes contributes to the "school-to-prison pipeline," which unfairly affects minorities and students with disabilities.

"The criminalization of everyday and ordinary childhood behaviour under imprecise statutes can have disastrous and discriminatory consequences," Gupta said. "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."

The ACLU filed its lawsuit in August on behalf of students including Niya Kenny, who in October 2015 videotaped Richland County Deputy Ben Fields flipping another Spring Valley High School student out of her chair and tossing her across a classroom after she refused to surrender her cellphone.

Kenny told the deputy what he was doing was wrong, and she and the other student were arrested and charged with disturbing schools.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott swiftly fired Fields, saying the deputy's actions made him want to "throw up" but that the officer shouldn't have ever been called in the first place, saying it is up to educators to manage their classrooms. Local prosecutors ultimately found no probable cause to charge Fields with a crime.

As the ACLU filed its lawsuit, Lott's department reached a settlement with the Justice Department to do its part in ending the "school-to-prison pipeline" by providing intensive annual training for deputies who work in more than 60 schools on how to de-escalate situations, avoid bias and interact properly with disabled students.

The agreement also required the creation of an advisory group including students and parents and the hiring of outside consultants approved by the DOJ to assist with compliance. It settled a civil rights review that began five months before the cellphone video incident went viral.

For his part, Lott has called the "disturbing schools" law "terrible" and "misused and abused." In a statement issued Wednesday, the sheriff called on South Carolina lawmakers to make revising the "disturbing schools" law a priority when they reconvene next year.

Efforts to reform the law failed this year.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/