Official says 'disturbing schools' laws to blame
By Diane Knich | The Post and Courier
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Juvenile crime is down, but the number of young people entering the judicial system in South Carolina has increased in recent years, according to a panel at a Charleston School of Law symposium.
A law that makes "disturbing schools" a crime was intended to keep students safe, but instead it's pushing more students into the criminal justice system, said William Byars, director of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. Other members of Friday's panel -- called "Juvenile Justice: Schools as Pipelines to Prison" -- were Robin Kimbrough-Melton, a research professor from Clemson University; Serena McDaniel, assistant solicitor from Aiken County; and Paul Garfinkel, a family court judge.
The panel was one of six at the law school's second annual Law & Society Symposium. The theme of this year's event was "Crime and Punishment."
Disturbing-schools laws were well-intentioned, Byars said, but they have "morphed and morphed until now it's a crime to be an obnoxious teenager in school."
It's important, when possible, to keep children out of the judicial system, Byars said, "because the deeper you get into it, the harder it is to get out."
McDaniel said that as a solicitor, she has three choices when a disturbing-schools case comes before her. She can prosecute, dismiss or divert it. And she dismisses about half the cases that come her way.
She only prosecutes those that are "truly criminal is nature," she said.
"If you stick 500 kids in a school, they are bound to fight once in a while," she said. And students with minor offenses, such as truancy, are sometimes sent to her for disturbing schools.
Byars said another factor pushing more students into the criminal justice system is the misuse by school administrators of on-site police officers known as school resource officers. Some administrators are turning over routine discipline matters to the officers, who have no choice but to deal with them in a legal way.
Kimbrough-Melton said students are coming into school with more difficult problems that can't be resolved through legal means. Some have severe academic problems or learning disabilities, while others have parents who are in jail or have mental health or drug problems. Some students fall behind as early as third or fourth grade, she said, and many of them are "headed for the juvenile justice system."
Byars said incarcerating young people can cost $100,000 per year. And there are many less restrictive alternatives that are also less expensive, including intensive supervision and mental health services.
Kimbrough-Melton said many students who are incarcerated are eligible for special education services, but they don't always get them. "We know a lot about what works in juvenile justice," she said, "but we don't do a lot of what works in juvenile justice."
Reach Diane Knich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5401.