Federal Court Rules Unconstitutional Two South Carolina School Laws that Led to ‘Disproportionate’ Number of Black and Disabled Arrests  

Chairs with desks attached in an empty classroom. There are windows on the right and a chalkboard in the back.

Chairs with desks attached in an empty classroom. There are windows on the right and a chalkboard in the back.

By Jonathan Lewis

RICHMOND, VA – Two South Carolina school laws were ruled unconstitutional last week by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a district court decision judging the laws were unconstitutionally vague and have resulted in a disproportionate number of arrests and discipline against Black and disabled students.

Kenny v. Wilson was filed by the ACLU in 2016 because Kenny, an 18-year-old student of Spring Valley High School in Columbia at the time, was arrested and “taken to a detention center because she had cried out after she saw a school resource officer picking up a classmate and throwing her to the ground,”  according to the ACLU.

The Disturbing Schools and Disorderly Conduct statutes criminalized students’ “behaviors like cursing or acting in a ‘disorderly’ or ‘boisterous’ manner” in elementary and secondary schools,” wrote the ACLU.

The laws were determined by the courts to be too vague to ensure non-discriminatory enforcement, and “failed to provide students notice of what behaviors might expose them to criminal charges and lacked sufficient safeguards to prevent arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement,” said the ACLU.

The laws were “enforced in a grossly discriminatory way against Black students and students with disabilities,” added the ACLU.

The court accepted the ACLU’s argument that the laws “arbitrarily criminalized a wide range of common student behavior. As the court recognized, subjecting students to criminal penalties under such vague rules interferes with their education and their future, and produces stark racial disparities,” said Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney in the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU.

The ACLU is hoping that this win will be “instructive to the many school districts across the country where students continue to be charged with ‘disorderly conduct’ and similar vague crimes”, said Hinger.

The ACLU represented several plaintiffs, including the nonprofit organization Girls Rock Charleston and multiple students of color and disabled students.

About The Author

Jonathan is a second year student at UC Davis majoring in Managerial Economics and minoring in Political Science and History.

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