Share story

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers said Thursday the current school disturbance law is too broad and negatively impacts the records of students by criminalizing youthful behavior.

A House subcommittee voted unanimously to change the law so it would only apply to former students who harm or threaten to harm other students or teachers in a school or college. The current law has been used against current students who disrupt school.

The proposed bill would only penalize nonstudents or former students, who go on school property without permission, loiter, commit physical assault, or threaten harm or deadly force on students and teachers. The new version would increase the punishment for violators to up to a $2,000 fine and a year in prison.

The bill would also establish a new criminal offense for students who threaten bodily harm or threaten to kill using any form of communication.

“This bill basically is designed to keep children within our schools safe. We’ve had a number of issues and concerns, all of which have been confirmed,” said Sen. Mia McLeod, author of the measure. The Columbia senator said it was confirmed by parents and members of law enforcement who said the bill would correct the existing law that does not distinguish normal adolescent behavior from those behaviors that require law enforcement action.

“We need to move from a situation that is a catch all statute that is too broadly impacting our youth,” Deputy Chief Chris Cowan of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department said. “It specifies what is criminal behavior and focuses on external threats, not the internal situations that should be handled by administrators and teachers in our schools.”

The realities of the current school disturbance legislation hit close to home for one South Carolina family. Lance and Melissa Still said their 11-year-old son fell victim to the broad statute after trying to defend himself during an altercation in P.E. class. Melissa Still said her son, who had no prior disciplinary problems, was suspended for three days, and was ridiculed when he returned.

“He has a criminal juvenile record for defending himself over a fumbled football. This law has to be changed. Unless we pay a lawyer thousands of dollars to have his record expunged, it will stay on his record until he’s 17,” Melissa Still said.

Members of the House said they want do more to help families that have been impacted. Former Judge and subcommittee member Rep. Gary Clary of Central said lawmakers need to correct their wrongs and address the pitfalls of the current legislation. “For this young man to have this record that is attached to conduct that we are going to correct in this bill, there’s a real problem that exists.”