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A 2018 brawl at North Charleston High School resulted in nine students being charged by police, three of whom were arrested.

A fight of that magnitude is rather unusual for a Charleston area school. But incidents that leave students in the hands of law enforcement officers rather than school administrators are disappointingly common.

And the consequences can be long-lasting, leaving students serving jail time and carrying criminal records that will follow them through their adult lives.

In recent years, hundreds of students have been arrested statewide, mostly under the dubious "disturbing schools" law. That vague statute was originally intended to prevent outsiders from interfering on campus, but had more recently been applied to everything from arguing with a teacher to getting in a fight.

As such, it forced a troubling number of students — some as young as 9 years old — into the criminal justice system over issues that would have once been handled by school administrators and parents.

Charleston County schools had 265 arrests during the 2014-15 school year, for example, and black students were disproportionately involved, making up roughly 85 percent of disturbing schools charges.

Thankfully, the state legislature passed a law in May 2018 that returned the disturbing schools statute to its original purpose, which ought to lead to fewer arrests on campus, although the same law created a new crime of threatening violence on campus.

The presence of resource officers in most South Carolina schools — state officials hope to expand a law enforcement presence to every school soon — also complicates matters. Police officers help keep students safe, which is obviously the intended purpose, but they can also arrest them.

To be sure, extreme incidents warrant arrests. And given the tragic record of deadly violence in United States schools over the past several years, it's critical to take threats seriously and be particularly vigilant for potentially dangerous behavior.

Still, it's critical to keep in mind that students are young people. Their capacity for making adult decisions isn't fully formed yet, and methods for managing disruptive behavior should reflect that reality.

Arrests and involvement in the criminal justice system, on the other hand, increase the risk of poor school performance moving forward. Students become less likely to graduate. They could face challenges getting into college or finding a job.

It's not an ideal situation. Of course, neither is a fight so chaotic that it forces an entire high school to go on lockdown until police get the situation under control.

But some behavioral problems that end up getting law enforcement involved could almost certainly be handled by school administrators and parents. If school staff need reinforcement to help them keep things under control, that's something worth addressing by legislature. Dozens of school-related bills will be up for consideration in the 2019 session.

Keeping students safe is of vital importance. So is helping prepare them for successful, productive adult lives. That's a substantially tougher challenge with a criminal record.

This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.

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