How South Carolina Criminalizes Troubled Youth


The video from Spring Valley High School in Columbia, SC is seared in many Americans' memories. A school resource officer, working for the Richland County Sheriff's Department, was seen grabbing a student, flipping her desk over, and dragging her across the classroom.

The October video clip went viral—and eventually led to the termination of the officer, Ben Fields.

Some have defended the officer's actions, saying the video does not show the whole incident. But in fact, it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the county—and state—treat schoolchildren who present disciplinary problems.

Parents, students, community members and elected officials have raised concerns about the presence of police in schools and say the lack of written policies, along with South Carolina's regressive Disturbing Schools law – has led to the criminalization of minor misbehavior. Last week, state legislators representing Richland County filed bills to reform the Disturbing Schools statute and to track arrests of students statewide.

The Spring Valley incident also brought scrutiny to the department's School Resource Officer (SRO) Program – the largest in the state – that deploys 87 police officers to every middle school and high school in the county's two school districts. It is now under federal investigation. But there has been less attention placed on other questionable programs within the department's Youth Services Division..

Richland County has launched several “diversion programs” that claim to help troubled pre-teens and teens, but in effect punish, humiliate and harm children.

One of these programs is Camp LOTT, which stands for “Leading Our Troubled Teens” —but also happens to be the last name of Richland Sheriff Leon Lott. Local news footage of the boot camp shows several Richland County Deputies verbally assaulting and humiliating a group of boys – almost all African American – until some of the boys are clearly shaken and distraught.

In another instance, an officer picks up a boy who appears to be about nine years old and acts as if he is going to throw the small boy against a chain-link fence.

“We break them down in order to build them up,” says one sheriff's deputy in the video proudly.

Another boot-camp program, called JUMP (Juveniles Under Motivated Pressure), takes place in the department's parking lot. In this program, the “motivated pressure” involves children holding bricks over their heads while doing laps around the parking lot. Smaller children – as young as six years old – have cinderblocks attached to a belt around their waist and are made to drag the blocks across the parking lot while doing squats.

When children stumble or tire out, the staff berate them and force them to continue these grueling exercises.

The Department's READY (Richland county, Educating, And Deterring, Youth) program has been featured in the A&E television program Beyond Scared Straight. In this program, parents pay a $10 fee to have their children transported in shackles, suited in a prison jumpsuit, and locked in an adult holding cell for the night. Like Camp LOTT and JUMP, the purported goal of the READY program is to scare children into curbing behaviors that may land them in jail in the future.

By stationing its officers in Richland County schools, the sheriff's department helps create a perverse demand for its diversion programs. When a Richland SRO arrests students for low-level offenses in school, the departments often offers these students the opportunity to participate in the scared straight program in lieu of pressing charges.

In one case, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for marijuana possession in school and the department directed him to participate in READY as a sanction. When his parents refused to have their son spend a night in jail as diversion, the department referred his case to court, where the charges were ultimately dismissed.

While the sheriff's department may intend to help troubled youth, humiliating and terrifying them is not the way to help them. Extensive research has shown that boot camps and scared-straight programs are the least effective programs in preventing crime. In fact, several studies have found that sending children to boot camps and scared straight programs actually increases the likelihood that they will have future involvement with justice system.

One study of nine scared straight programs around the U.S. found that these programs increased crime by 28 percent for youth who participated in these programs compared to a control group. Another national review of Scared Straight programs found that although these programs cost only about $50 per participant, the longer term costs are much greater because of the higher recidivism of these programs. Taxpayers lose approximately $6,572 in increased subsequent criminal justice costs for each program participant. Adding the increased costs that accrue to crime victims from the higher recidivism rates increases the expected costs of Scared Straight programs to $24,531 per participant.

Instead of operating these harmful and ineffective programs, the Richland County Sheriff's department should partner with proven programs in schools and communities that successfully divert young people from the juvenile justice system and help them grow into successful and law-abiding adults.

Effective community-based programs hold students accountable for their actions while also teaching them to resolve conflicts and contribute to their communities.

Restorative justice, teen courts and mentoring programs are much better alternatives to police in schools, boot camps and scared-straight programs.

In order to prevent more incidents like the one at Spring Valley High School, Richland County should remove police officers from its schools and make investing in community programs that work to keep kids, schools and communities safe a priority.

Mishi Faruqee is National Field Director of the Youth First Initiative, a national campaign to end youth incarceration and invest in effective community alternatives. She is based in New York City, and welcomes readers' comments.

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