Disturbing schools law amended after decades of being 'unconstitutionally vague'

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – An amended disturbing schools law is aimed at protecting students from criminal charges.

If a child acts out in class, they'll no longer be charged with a disturbing schools misdemeanor. South Carolina Rep. Russell Fry said the law traces back to 1919, but as time progressed the State House was seeking to make the law clearer and said it was sorely needed in the school districts across the state.

"It really defied logic and you had a lot of parents and law enforcement officials really scratching their heads about what this law was intended to do. It was used all across the map and in fact was held by the federal court system to be unconstitutionally vague."

With clearer guidelines in place, the amended disturbing schools law will increase the penalty from 90 days in jail to one year, and from a $1,000 fine to $2,000. It also distinguishes between students and non-students and only applies to non-students.

"The Horry County School District does a full investigation, we take witness statements we review video, we do all of that before we decide what needs to go next," said Lisa Bourcier, spokesperson for Horry County Schools. "Unfortunately, we do have circumstance where we will have to involve local law enforcement to see if a crime has been committed."

Bourcier said the amended part that involves non-students could be a beneficial thing in the future.

"We have a lot of spectators that come to sporting events and guests that come on our campuses, so I think this defines those procedures and defines a little bit more when you're actually visiting on a school property," she said.

Some of the issues in the prior disturbing schools law was brought to light back in October 2015 at Spring Valley High in Columbia when a student was dragged out of class using "excessive force" and the whole thing was caught on camera.

Fry said that scenario was included during discussions at the State House.

"Another example was a father who watched his son be picked on and was bullied, and when kids started shoving him and he fought back, the kid who was defending himself was actually charged with disturbing schools," Fry said.

He added that, at first, law enforcement expressed some concerns and had some resistance about using the law as a tool for officer discretion, but eventually supported it.

"I think it was a tool they could use and they didn't want to take away officer discretion, but once they heard testimony and gave some suggestions to tweak the bill, they got behind it," Fry said.

In a statement, Cpl. Tom Vest with the Myrtle Beach Police Department said:

"The changes to the current law will not change our mission in the schools to protect the safety of all students. The school resource officers will continue to work with school administrators to foster a safe learning environment in our schools."

"We always talk about how is it best to handle students," Bourcier said. "You know, are there different services we need to provide them or other counseling opportunities? Do we need to get their parents more involved? So we really look at each student on a case-by-case basis when we are dealing with behavioral issues."

Fry noted how a misdemeanor charge can follow youth around for years and he hopes the amended law gains better balance.

"This is huge for parents," he said. "Kids are kids sometimes, and get caught up in the wrong situation (and) should not be criminalized by an over-broad charge. It follows them around for a long time, it stigmatizes them to their school, law enforcement, to the community and their peers at school. This gets us back to that balance, making sure you're not over criminalizing children for being children."

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill in May and it passed by a wide margin in both the State House and the Senate.

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