Black students bear brunt of enforcement as police file more disorderly conduct charges in schools

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Advocates say one student was charged for singing a rap song on a school bus. Another for cutting in line. A third for running and shouting in the cafeteria.

The crime: disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor that’s drawing more and more kids in Virginia schools into the criminal justice system.

The number of disorderly cases filed by school resource officers increased by 45 percent over the past four years – up from 360 in 2016 to 523 this fiscal year, according to data provided by the state and analyzed by the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The center found black students accounted for a disproportionate share of the charges, representing just 22 percent of the state’s school population but more than 62 percent of school-based disorderly conduct criminal complaints.

Amy Woolard, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, argues the law as it applies to schools is too vague, allowing students to be charged for any activity an officer deems a disruption. She co-authored a report released Thursday making the case for its repeal.

“I think a basic tenet of state law is that it needs to be written in a way that people can understand how not to break it,” she said. “In this section of our disorderly conduct statute, we don’t have that quality.”

The law’s application in state schools has faced scrutiny for years. In 2015, a Center for Public Integrity report detailed how an autistic sixth-grader in Lynchburg was charged for kicking a trash can. In 2016 the Washington Post reported a Prince William County teen was charged after refusing to cooperate with a school resource officer who accused him of stealing a 65-cent carton of milk.

A bill proposed by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, to change the state code to prohibit students from being charged with disorderly conduct on school grounds passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support earlier this year, but died in a House of Delegates subcommittee on a party-line vote, with Republicans opposing.

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police didn’t take a position on the legislation, but the organization’s director, Dana Schrad, said she wanted “to make sure that it didn’t in any way tie the hands of law enforcement.”

Advocates argue that serious criminal activity, including fights, are covered by existing laws that are less subjectively enforced and that behavior schools deem “disorderly” can be addressed without police intervention.

“Disorderly conduct is, by law and design, the crime the state uses against you when it can’t find any other crime,” Woolard and her co-authors wrote.