This Article examines the 2015 Spring Valley High School incident – the high-profile arrest of a Columbia, South Carolina high school student for “disturbing schools” in which a school resource officer threw her out of her desk – to identify and illustrate the core elements of the school-to-prison pipeline’s legal architecture, and to evaluate legal reforms in response to growing concern over the pipeline.
The Spring Valley incident illustrates, first, how broad criminal laws transform school discipline incidents into law enforcement matters. Second, it illustrates how legal instruments that should limit the role of police officers assigned to schools (school resource officers) can direct their involvement in situations that school officials should handle without law enforcement. Third, too few diversion programs are operated by schools, leading to law enforcement involvement as a means to access such programs. Fourth, prosecutors too rarely exercise discretion to screen out charges that are ill-suited for juvenile court involvement.
The Spring Valley incident helped catalyze promising, but incomplete, legal reforms in South Carolina. Some reforms have caused some important successes – most notably, the Richland County (Columbia) Sheriffs Department’s school resource officers have cut school-based arrests of teenagers significantly. Statewide, a bill has passed one house of the legislature to narrow the scope of disturbing schools. A new state regulation limits when schools may refer misbehavior to law enforcement. Reforming all aspects of the pipeline’s legal architecture would lead to broader and more lasting change.
Josh Gupta-Kagan, The School to Prison Pipeline's Legal Architecture: Lessons from the Spring Valley Incident and its Aftermath, 45 FORDHAM URBAN J. 83 (2017).