Is It Disorderly Conduct? And How Should the School Respond?

Author’s note: The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals discussed below as to the adjudication for disorderly conduct. In re T.T.E., ___ N.C. ___, 831 S.E.2d 293 (2019). The state supreme court concluded that substantial evidence established that the juvenile perpetrated an “’annoying, disturbing, or alarming act … exceeding the bounds of social toleration normal for’” the high school during the course of the instructional day through a public disturbance by “’engaging in violent conduct’” by “’throwing a chair toward another student in the school’s cafeteria.’” 

A high school student throws a chair in the cafeteria. The chair doesn’t hit anyone; indeed, no one is in the immediate vicinity of the chair. The student runs out of the cafeteria. Has the student committed a crime? If so, how should school officials respond?

The court of appeals addressed the first question in yesterday’s opinion in In re T.T.E., __ N.C. App. ___ (2018). T.T.E., a juvenile who was not yet sixteen, threw a chair in the cafeteria of Clyde A. Erwin High School in Asheville and then ran out of the cafeteria. The school resource officer, Mickey Ray, saw T.T.E. throw the chair and run from the room. Ray followed T.T.E. out of the cafeteria, snuck up behind him, and grabbed him by the shirt. T.T.E. cursed when Ray grabbed him and then told Ray he was playing with his brother when he threw the chair. T.T.E. was taken to a conference room, and a teacher at the school testified that the situation quickly settled down. The teacher said that T.T.E. was “remarkably calm” and “very respectful” less than two minutes after Ray grabbed him.

The juvenile petition. The State filed a juvenile petition alleging that T.T.E. violated G.S. 14-288.4 when he “did intentionally cause a public disturbance at Clyde A. Erwin High School, Buncombe County NC, by engaging in violent conduct.  This conduct consisted of throwing a chair toward another student in the school’s cafeteria.” The petition also alleged that T.T.E. unlawfully resisted a public officer in violation of G.S. 14-223.

The adjudication and appeal. The district court adjudicated T.T.E. delinquent for both offenses. T.T.E. appealed, arguing in part that the evidence was insufficient to support either charge. A majority of the court of appeals panel that heard his case agreed.

Disorderly Conduct. G.S. 14-288.4 provides that any person who willfully engages in disorderly conduct is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor. Disorderly conduct is defined as a public disturbance caused by a person who engages in certain acts that are specified in G.S. 14-288.4(a)(1)-(8). The State contended on appeal that the petition, which did not specify the subsection of G.S. 14-288.4 that T.T.E. was alleged to have violated, alleged a violation of G.S. 14-288.4(a)(1). Thus, the court of appeals evaluated the sufficiency of the evidence under the elements of only that subsection of the disorderly conduct statute.

Under G.S. 14-288.4(a)(1), disorderly conduct is a public disturbance intentionally caused by any person who “[e]ngages in fighting or other violent conduct or in conduct creating the threat of imminent fighting or other violence.” A public disturbance is “[a]ny annoying, disturbing, or alarming act or condition exceeding the bounds of social toleration normal for the time and place” that occurs in a public place or “occurs in, affects persons in, or is likely to affect persons in a place to which the public or a substantial group has access.” G.S. 14-288.1(a).

Regardless of whether T.T.E.’s conduct created a public disturbance, the court of appeals determined that there was no evidence that he engaged in fighting, violent conduct or conduct creating an imminent risk of fighting or other violence. No one was near the chair. The chair did not hit a table or another chair. No one was hurt or threatened. T.T.E. did not yell, throw anything else, or raise his fists. Nothing he did, the court said, indicated escalating violent behavior. Thus, the court concluded, T.T.E.’s acts did not amount to disorderly conduct under G.S. 14-288.4(a)(1). Accordingly, the court vacated the adjudication and disposition for disorderly conduct.

Resisting an Officer. G.S. 14-223 makes it a class 2 misdemeanor to willfully and unlawfully resist, delay, or obstruct a public officer who is discharging or attempting to discharge a duty of his office.  To prove this crime, the State must establish, among other elements, that the defendant (or juvenile alleged to be delinquent) knew or had reasonable grounds to believe that the victim was a public officer. The State failed to prove that element in T.T.E.’s case. The school resource officer snuck up behind T.T.E. and, without asking him to stop, grabbed him by the shirt. T.T.E. did not know or have reasonable grounds to know that the person who grabbed him was a public officer until after he was stopped. Moreover, the court found no evidence that T.T.E. resisted, delayed or obstructed the resource officer after the officer grabbed him. Yelling “no” and cursing when the officer grabbed him did not suffice.

Dissent. Judge Arrowood concurred with the majority opinion that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication for resisting a public officer. He dissented, however, from the holding that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication for disorderly conduct. He reasoned that the resource officer’s testimony that T.T.E. threw a chair which “the juvenile admitted he was throwing at another student, his brother, provided substantial evidence of violent conduct.” (Arrowood, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part, slip op. at 4 -5).

How should schools respond? In light of the court of appeals’ conclusion that T.T.E.’s behavior did not constitute the crimes alleged, few would argue that the filing of a delinquency petition was the ideal response to the chair-throwing incident. But even when misbehavior at school clearly does amount to criminal or delinquent conduct, some experts argue that minor, nonviolent incidents should not automatically be referred for prosecution in juvenile or criminal court. Indeed, the Administrative Office of the Courts, through its School Justice Partnership North Carolina (SJP) program, is coordinating efforts by jurisdictions across the state to implement school justice partnerships—agreements between courts, schools, and law enforcement that are designed “to address student misconduct within the school system and community rather than by referral to the criminal justice system.” See School Justice Partnership North Carolina Fact Sheet. The SJP program states that “[c]ourt involvement for minor misconduct increases the likelihood that youth will reoffend, and outcomes worsen with deeper involvement in the system.” Id. The program also notes that “[f]or some students, a school-based referral can lead to a permanent criminal record which creates barriers to college financial aid, employment, housing, and military eligibility.”Id.