This reads like something out of the onion. Her arrest was based on a law against “disturbing school,” a mysterious offense that is routinely levied against South Carolina students. Each year, about1,200 kids are charged with disturbing school in the state—some for yelling and shoving, others for cursing. (In fact, the girl who was thrown from her desk was charged with disturbing school too, though the public uproar focused on the use of force.) State law makes it a crime to “disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school” or “to act in an obnoxious manner.” The charge, which has been filed against kids as young as 7, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, is punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000[≈ Traditional cell phone cost per year] fine.
At least 22 states and dozens of cities and towns currently outlaw school disturbances in one way or another. South Dakota prohibits “boisterous” behavior at school, while Arkansas bans “annoying conduct.” Florida makes it a crime to “interfere with the lawful administration or functions of any educational institution”—or to “advise” another student to do so. In Maine, merely interrupting a teacher by speaking loudly is a civil offense, punishable by up to a$500 [≈ Basic iPad, 2011] fine.
In some states, like Washington and Delaware, disturbing-school laws are on the books but used relatively rarely or not at all. In others, they have become a standard classroom-management tool. Last year, disturbing school was the second-most-common accusation leveled against juveniles in South Carolina, after misdemeanor assault. An average of seven kids were charged every day that schools were in session.
Each year in Maryland, Florida, and Kentucky, about 1,000 students face thecharge. In North Carolina, the number is closer to 2,000. Nationwide, good data are hard to come by. Some states, like Nevada and Arizona, do not track how many times juveniles are charged with this offense. (In Arizona, a court official would tell me only that the number is somewhere between zero and 5,375 arrests a year.) But figures collected by The Atlantic suggest that authorities charge juveniles with some version of disturbing school more than 10,000 times a year. This number does not even include older teenagers who are charged as adults.
Over the years, judges around the country have landed on various definitions ofdisturbance. In Georgia, a court concluded, a fight qualifies as disturbing school if it attracts student spectators. But a Maryland court found that attracting an audience does not create a disturbance unless normal school activities are delayed or canceled. In Alabama, a court found that a student had disturbed school because his principal had had to meet with him to discuss his behavior; an appeals court overturned the ruling on the grounds that talking with students was part of a principal’s job.