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In October 2015, a Black teenager at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina had her cell phone out in her math class. Her teacher told her repeatedly to put it away. Repeatedly she refused. The teacher then called a school administrator, who similarly instructed her to put away her phone. The student continued to refuse. The administrator then called the school resource officer (“SRO”), the uniformed, armed deputy sheriff assigned to the school. The SRO came and informed the student that she had to put away her cell phone. When the student again refused, the officer arrested her for the crime of “disturbing schools.” Other students in the classroom recorded the arrest on their cell phones. The video footage captured the SRO pulling the teenager out of her desk and appearing to throw her across the classroom floor. The officer also arrested a second student who encouraged her classmates to record the arrest and vocally objected to it. Students posted their videos, which soon went viral. The incident quickly joined a long list of other incidents involving questionable use of force by SROs. It also contributed to the larger debate about policing tactics, especially those tactics directed at Black individuals and communities.

The incident initially garnered national attention due to the SRO’s use of excessive force. But the Spring Valley High School incident also illustrates how specific incidents of relatively minor school misbehavior lead to arrest and prosecution rather than school-based intervention. This incident was a product of a series of choices: by educators who asked an SRO to become involved in a classroom management situation, and by the SRO who agreed to do so and who chose to make two arrests. These kinds of decisions are replicated in a range of cases which have been dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline. The result — children charged with criminal or delinquent acts for school misbehavior — is strongly criticized for imposing an overly punitive and harmful law enforcement response on situations that would be better handled through school discipline.

The decisions that lead to school-based arrests, like those at the center of the Spring Valley incident, do not happen in a vacuum. This Article will use that incident and South Carolina’s broader experience to analyze the laws, policies, and legal practices that create the legal architecture of the school-to-prison pipeline — and also identify promising, but incomplete reforms that have taken root in South Carolina. Reforming individual elements of that architecture will help limit this problem, but the problem can only be completely solved by reforming all elements. The legal architecture involves several interlocking legal elements that together cause school discipline issues to become law enforcement issues.


Criminal Law | Education Law | Juvenile Law | Law


This article was initially published in Volume 45 of the Fordham Urban Law Journal and is republished with permission.