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Three schools among top places in county for crime reports

A Beaufort City police vehicle sits parked in front of Beaufort High School on Feb. 11, 2016 in Beaufort.
A Beaufort City police vehicle sits parked in front of Beaufort High School on Feb. 11, 2016 in Beaufort. dearley@islandpacket.com

Police are writing more crime reports at three local schools than almost any other location in the county.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette analyzed every non-traffic crime report filed in Beaufort County in 2014 and ranked the addresses where the most reports were written. The county’s two Walmarts were the two top spots for crime reports, as reported Wednesday. Three schools, all in Beaufort, also made it into the top 10.

Specifically:

▪ Battery Creek High School came in fourth on the list. The school posted 128 crime reports, including 28 simple assaults, 19 thefts and 24 reports of disturbing schools. There were more than 15 crime reports written on school premises for every 100 students — more than double the rate of any other high school in the county.

▪ Beaufort High School was eighth with 102 crime reports, including 24 assaults, 36 thefts and 10 drug reports. There were about 7.5 incidents reported for every 100 students at the school.

▪  Robert Smalls International Academy came in ninth. The kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school posted 89 crime reports — or about 12 for every 100 students. The reports included 39 assaults, 11 thefts and 25 reports of disturbing school.

There is no way to tell how many of the crime reports involved students or whether they led to criminal charges. By definition the reports track incidents where police were involved on school property.

School district leaders and law enforcement officials say the three schools are not more dangerous than others in the district. In fact, discipline records tracked by the district show the three schools have about the same number — or even fewer — fights and other serious disciplinary cases reported to principals as schools with far fewer reports.

Rather, the results may point to the subjective nature of when school resource officers decide to write crime reports vs. when they deem disciplinary problems not worthy of police intervention, said Beaufort County Superintendent Jeff Moss.

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Since 1995, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office along with the Bluffton and Beaufort police departments have stationed full-time police officers, called SROs, in each of the county’s public middle and high schools. Beginning in 2013, officers have also split their time visiting the county’s public elementary schools.

Moss likens the situation to when police choose to write speeding tickets and when they don’t.

“It’s similar if I drive to Bluffton going 65 mph,” Moss said. “One officer on the road may not pull me over, but another would write me a ticket. Anytime you have the human element involved, you are always going to have some subjectivity.”

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But it may be more than just the SROs who are being subjective in determining the types of student behavior that are worthy of police reports. Local law enforcement say crime reports on school property often stem from referrals from principals and other school staff.

“Unless it is a charge that absolutely needs to be done or an officer observes it, the school administrators are in charge of that particular school,” said Capt. Alfredo Givens, who leads the SRO program for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. “So we take what they have to say into account.”

Nationally, far too much subjectivity exists in determining whether student behavior is criminal, education observers say. As a result, nonviolent misbehavior by students that were once handled by teachers and principals — including cursing at teachers and arguing in the hallway — may now be handled by SROs who can classify them as criminal offenses that land students in court and even in juvenile detention centers.

That’s a problem because involvement with the juvenile justice system can set already troubled kids up to fail and can lead to years of probation, said Susan Dunn, legal director of the S.C. American Civil Liberties Union.

“Reporting to a school resource officer should be the last resort,” Dunn said. “If you want to help a student succeed, that is not the way to do it.”

Lisa Thurau of Strategies for Youth, a Massachusetts-based organization that works to improve police interactions with youth, agrees.

“You can look at a school as a misdemeanor factory, or you can look at it as a place where you teach kids how to behave,” Thurau said. “You should view every arrest as a sign of failure.”

Subjectivity in writing police reports has also led to claims of biases against minorities and students with disabilities in other parts of the nation. According to recent reports from civil rights groups, these groups are more likely to be arrested in school.

Beaufort County is no different.

In the last fiscal year, 53 percent of all juvenile cases referred to the S.C. Department of Justice were against black children and teens. Though not all those charges began in schools, about 70 percent of cases for the common charge of “disturbing schools” were black students — even though they made up only about 30 percent of the district’s student body.

Introduction to the courts

Some local parents are concerned about the criminalization of misbehaving students.

One Beaufort mom said there is no doubt her teenage son, who attends Battery Creek High School, broke school rules one morning last November. But she believes he shouldn’t have been charged with a crime.

Anytime you have the human element involved, you are always going to have some subjectivity.

Jeff Moss, Beaufort County School District superintendent

He was accused of throwing Skittles candies at the teacher’s back during class.

Fed up with the behavior, school staff called two sheriff’s deputies — including the school resource officer who works full-time at Battery Creek — to the classroom.

When the student was sent from the room, he threw a tantrum and shouted profanities in the hallway, according to police reports.

The officers called an administrator who later recommended the student be expelled from school. She also told the officers she wished to press criminal charges against the student, according to the reports.

The student was charged with disturbing school, and the case was sent to Beaufort County Family Court, police reports show.

Because he had a prior criminal charge for attempting to run away from home, the student likely will face time in a juvenile detention facility in Columbia in addition to a school suspension, said the student’s mother, who requested anonymity to avoid identifying her son.

Disturbing school can carry a sentence of up to 90 days in juvenile detention and a $1,000 fine. A probation officer advised that the student will likely serve 45 days, the student’s mother said.

The incident was not the student’s first disciplinary issue at school or trouble with law enforcement, but his mother worries the criminal charge will contribute to a record her son won’t be able to leave behind into adulthood.

“I’m not that mom that thinks that their son is always innocent,” she said. “The way he behaved is not appropriate in any way. But it seemed like they really brought the hammer down on the kid. He was already facing expulsion. Did you need to make it a crime?”

Administrators at Battery Creek High School could not comment on the case as federal law prohibits schools from discussing specific student discipline records.

Reporting to a school resource officer should be the last resort. If you want to help a student succeed, that is not the way to do it.

Susan Dunn, S.C. American Civil Liberties Union

Similar concerns over the criminalization of student misbehavior were raised in Columbia last year.

In October, a video surfaced, showing an SRO flinging a combative 16-year-old female student across the floor of a Columbia area high school before arresting her. The student allegedly refused to leave her desk.

The officer was fired by Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott — but not before Lott gave insight to the subjective way his SROs are being used.

“Should that officer have been called to come get involved?” Lott said in a CNN interview. “That’s something the school district will have to answer. ... Is it proper to call an SRO to come in and discipline a child? Is that our job or the school’s job?”

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he advises school officials to call SROs, even if they are unsure if student behavior is criminal.

“I trust that my officers are trained well enough that they can judge what they should and should not do in those situations,” Tanner said.

But Tanner said that, many times, officers face unclear decisions about when school behavior warrants a crime report.

“There are often a lot of very fine lines between a student being out of order in a school and when it becomes a crime,” Tanner said.

Principals defend actions

Principals of the three schools with the highest crime rates defend their relationship with their SROs, who they describe as positive influences in their schools.

“When law enforcement is involved in an altercation, and a parent asks, I am often pretty proud to say, ‘Ma’am, sir, we expect a safe school environment,’ ” said principal Carole Ingram of Beaufort Middle School. “Some behaviors compromise safety in a school, and, if law enforcement has to be involved, that baby has to come.”

Charges may also be a way to get through to students who are repeatedly misbehaving, they add.

“For those that are actually charged, it’s been a lesson that our kids have come back and shared with other kids,” said Ebonique Holloman, principal of Robert Smalls International Academy. “I’d rather have them learn a lesson now ... than when they are 21 or 26 years old and they aren’t dealt with with gentler hands.”

And the number of crime reports can be misleading, added Edmund Burnes, principal of Battery Creek High School. One troubled student can generate multiple police reports.

Ultimately, the principals say they have limited control over the number of reports that are filed.

Students and parents also initiate police involvement. For example, parents of children in school fights sometimes demand charges be filed against children they perceive as aggressors, Ingram said.

There may also be differing strategies for SROs among law enforcement agencies, said Corey Murphy, principal of Beaufort High School. Schools with SRO programs run by the Bluffton Police Department, for example, tend to have lower rates of reports compared with other schools.

Bluffton Police have the same policies in place with the school district as other schools in the county. The agency didn’t offer a theory on why they file fewer reports at schools but said officers work with schools to handle only those incidents that can’t be handled administratively, said department spokeswoman Joy Nelson.

No clear instructions

Principals and SROs don’t get clear guidance in state law either.

Take, for example, the crime of disturbing schools, the second most common criminal offense reported in Beaufort County schools. By definition, the charge is “ to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college” or “act in an obnoxious manner” on school premises, according to state statute.

Under that definition, nearly any type of student misbehavior would meet the conditions of a crime, say critics of the law. That leaves school officials and SROs to make subjective decisions.

At the district level, only broad recommendations exist on how SROs should operate in schools. The district’s memorandum of understanding with law enforcement specifically states that law enforcement officers should not act as school disciplinarians and should only intervene when an incident is in violation of the law.

Some behaviors compromise safety in a school, and, if law enforcement has to be involved, that baby has to come.

Carole Ingram, Beaufort Middle School principal

But such policies are not effective because of the vague state law, said Thurau, of Strategies for Youth.

Thurau and other advocates for limiting police involvement in schools suggest districts spell out the types of student behavior that should be handled with disciplinary action and which should be handled by police.

For now, Superintendent Moss said he advises principals who are in doubt to always report incidents to police.

“If you don’t report it, then it could come back to the principal, so we will always err on the side of safety for everyone,” Moss said.

The result: Discrepancies in how local schools treat the same offenses.

Consider:

▪ Police wrote more than 15 incident reports for every 100 students at Battery Creek High School in 2014. That’s three times the rate of any other high school in the county and the highest rate of reports of any school in the district.

▪ Robert Smalls International Academy students range from only 4 to 14 in age, but the school still had 11 reports for every 100 students for a total of 89 reports in 2014. The only other kindergarten-through-eighth-grade public school in the county in 2014, Riverview Charter School, logged only 10 reports.

▪ Beaufort High School, with its large student population, makes it fourth among schools for its crime rate with about 7.5 crimes reports for every 100 students. It has the second highest rate for high schools in the district.

▪ With 75 reports, Beaufort Middle School has the second highest rate for crime reports on school premises with about 13 reports written for every 100 students in 2014. Other schools, such as H.E. McCracken Middle School in Bluffton, had double the number of students but only one-third the number of police reports on school premises.

“When we see discrepancies like that, it usually means that the role of the SRO is defined differently by schools,” said Thurau of Strategies for Youth. “In many schools, officers are not allowed to go over disciplinary conduct and are called less often, while others may report more minor incidents.”

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh

About this series

A few spots in Beaufort County demand an outsized share of police time and public resources. The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reviewed thousands of police reports to identify the addresses where officers wrote the most reports in 2014. The data was used to build a top 10 list of crime hot spots.

On Feb. 10, we explored why the county’s two Walmarts were the top locations for crime reports.

On Feb. 12, we looked at the three schools and a handful of apartment complexes on the list.

What’s the fix?

Advocates recommend the following to limit over-policing in schools.

▪ School districts should create a memorandum of understanding with law enforcement agencies that gives detailed instructions for officer involvement in specific instances, said Lisa Thurau of Strategies for Youth, an organization dedicated to improving police interactions with youth. The instructions should focus on keeping police out of disciplinary matters to focus on student safety and serious crimes. Currently, the Beaufort County School District has agreements with police agencies that do not give instructions for how to handle specific incidents.

▪ Charging students through vague laws should be limited in schools, according to Susan Dunn of the South Carolina ACLU. The group supports efforts in the state legislature to redefine the crime of “disturbing schools” so that it no longer criminalizes common classroom misbehavior. “We should focus on actual crimes,” Dunn said.

▪  Attitudes toward reporting to police often come from the top down, Thurau said. Principals should try alternatives before pressing charges and should carefully track data for how often schools are referring students to law enforcement, Thurau suggests.

Incidents and reports

School

Incidents

in 2014

Reports per

100 students

Elementary schools

St. Helena

16

3.56

Coosa

10

2.1

Hilton Head SCA

12

1.51

Joseph S. Shanklin Sr.

6

1.25

Broad River

6

1.14

Beaufort

6

1.12

Mossy Oaks

4

0.99

M.C. Riley

7

0.85

Bluffton

6

0.72

Hilton Head

6

0.63

Lady’s Island

2

0.61

Okatie

4

0.6

Red Cedar

3

0.39

Pritchardville

3

0.36

Whale Branch

1

0.17

Middle schools

Beaufort

75

13.44

Lady’s Island

52

9.56

Hilton Head Island

61

6.13

Whale Branch

18

4.6

Bluffton

13

1.26

H.E. McCracken

27

2.41

K-8 schools

Riverview Charter

10

1.88

Robert Smalls IA

89

11.9

High Schools

Battery Creek

128

15.38

Beaufort

102

7.47

Whale Branch Early College

29

5.5

Hilton Head Island

58

4.52

Bluffton

23

1.8

Source: 2014 police reports

County’s top 10 spots for reported crime:

1. Walmart Supercenter at 350 Robert Smalls Parkway, Beaufort

206 incidents reported

2. Walmart Supercenter at 25 Pembroke Drive, Hilton Head

162 incidents reported

3. The Barmuda Triangle at 7 Greenwood Drive, Hilton Head

146 incidents reported

4. Battery Creek High School at 1 Blue Dolphin Drive, Beaufort

128 incidents reported

5. Hilton Head Gardens Apartments at 11 Southwood Park Drive, Hilton Head 115 incidents reported

6. August on Southside Apartments at 2808 Southside Blvd., Port Royal 113 incidents reported

7. Avalon Shores Apartment at 20 Simmonsville Road, Bluffton

107 incidents reported

8. Beaufort High School at 84 Sea Island Parkway, Beaufort

102 incidents reported

9. Robert Smalls International Academy at 43 W.K Alston Drive, Beaufort 89 incidents reported

10. Lakes at Myrtle Park Apartments at 4921 Bluffton Parkway, Bluffton

88 incidents reported

Source: 2014 police reports

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