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

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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.

16 comments on “Is It Disorderly Conduct? And How Should the School Respond?

  1. Although I don’t believe filing a petition for this conduct is ideal, I am not quite sure how the elements are not met when you throw a chair across the room at someone in a school cafeteria especially when the appellate court is supposed to look at the facts in a light most favorable to the state.

  2. When I read this opinion, I was shocked to see the response taken by the the school system. When you are dealing with juveniles, you expect this sort of behavior on occasion. Thank God the Court resolved this matter the way it did.

  3. With this decision, I guess the Court is saying it is not a violation of law for a student to pick up school owned property and throw it across the room. If the Court does not have or show any respect for other’s property, why would anyone else? This was a chair, and they are not designed to be flung about. A ball, yes, a chair, no. Whether the kids was playing around or not, it does not change the actions of the child. In my opinion, the Court made a mistake with this ruling.

  4. Would it then be ok to throw a chair in Walmart, or in the courtroom?

    • PERFECT question!!!

  5. What covers this type of behaviour then? Injury to personal property? Some sort of mischief charge?

  6. To those who replied, why does it have to be a crime in order to be worthy of disciplinary response by the school? Why does it have to be a crime at all? The school is free to address this internally without referral to the already overloaded criminal justice / court system. d

  7. School authorities should handle it as it occurred on campus proper. “Malicious mischief” charge, suspension (ISS or OSS), Confer with parent or guardian, counseling, and extra work (essay) as punishment explaining reason why actions were dangerous/hazardous. When I was a school resource officer (SRO) I had a similar case and that’s how we handled it, at my recommendation, and it worked much better than putting the matter into the court system. The young man thanked me some years later after he became a stellar citizen in the community.

    • Bravo! a letter of apology to peers and staff..scrubbing a few chairs..involving parents… much better healthier approach.

  8. I think the problem is that the state failed to cite the correct prong of the statute on appeal.

    Rather than stating that the petition alleged a violation of NCGS 14-288.4(a)(1), the prosecution should have cited NCGS 14-288.4(a)(6). That subsection states that disorderly conduct has occurred when someone “Disrupts, disturbs or interferes with the teaching of students at any public or private educational institution or engages in conduct which disturbs the peace, order or discipline at any public or private educational institution or on the grounds adjacent thereto.”

    This was a failure of the state not citing the correct violation, as opposed to this conduct actually being lawful.

    • I read case law some time ago that stated that the disturbance cannot be merely a brief disruption but must be so pronounced that classes had to be stopped or the school as a whole caused to stop. Chewing gum is a disturbance to discipline as it violates rules. Speaking without raising your hand interferes in a sense with the ability to teach. The offense must be reasonably related to a stoppage of the ability to teach or a breach of the peace so serious that alarm is raised. The appeals court in the case mentioned here decided that throwing a chair did not rise to the level of DC, nor would it rise to the level of (a) ( 6 ).

  9. My question is a public school really “public” as prescribed in the statute? Can anyone just walk into a school? No, they can not.

    Petitions should be a last resort after other intermediate measures are attempted.

  10. I am not an attorney. I am rather a psychotherapist who has worked with children since the 70’s. I believe many teens can act impulsively and cause harm when it is not intended. Criminalizing something like this is a mistake and these behaviors need to be handled in the schools with appropriate consequences . BUT,there needs to be more attention paid to respecting others and oneself. Each child needs to be in classes where self-regard, respect, honor, integrity,ethics and morality are discussed. This needs to be part of school curriculum from elementary grades and continue until they finish their education. There not only needs to be hands on projects which demonstrate these ideas are incorporated into everyday living,but also the parents must somehow become involved. Kids learn by watching and doing…so, we need to do better as adult human beings.

  11. Schools have for years abandoned common sense solution for minor disturbances by turning it over the police. When my now adult son ( who has autism and mild retardation and several other diagnoses )was in middle school he was alone in a classroom with a teacher and became upset and used a few foul words. The SRO charged him with disorderly conduct, and after getting letter from his psychiatrist and other caregivers and threatening to notify the media and carry placards in front of the courthouse denouncing the abuse of inappropriate statutes for the conduct of seriously disabled kids the DA dismissed the charge, and I got Disability Rights advocates to visit the school and read them the riot act. The school made radical adjustments to the special needs program rather than face legal action. Disorderly conduct has always been one of those catch all statutes that police rely on when they really have no viable charge yet do not want to admit it. If there is no actual or immanently likely violence associated with conduct it is not DC. It is a charge used far too often to sanction those who cannot be rightly charged at all but whose actions irritate the police or others. The court made the right decision, and the dissent is short sighted.

  12. Sometimes schools use charges to bring juveniles to the attention of the juvenile court because school staff have experienced a history of noncompliance with that juvenile – and have had little to no luck with the parent(s) in improving that juvenile’s behavior. It is these situations in which I sympathize with the school systems and believe that referrals to the juvenile court can be appropriate, assuming that we juvenile court authorities act appropriately and consequently refer juveniles and families to appropriate community services. I get it that our child serving institutions need to evolve but consider too schools are asked to do a lot with less. Therefore I would suggest that school systems do what we in the 5th District Court District advise them to do: if the school identifies a problematic juvenile, refer that juvenile to the school social worker. If attempts to correct that juvenile’s behavior fail after referring that juvenile (and parent) to available and appropriate community resources, call an intake court counselor to coordinate a possible referral to the juvenile court system. (NOTE: but schools should not expect much progress if a kid is referred on an ungovernable/undisciplined status; this route is counterproductive because it carries no enforcement potential and can actually shape kids’ behavior for the worse. This is why juvenile court authorities prefer charges when juveniles are referred to us). Juveniles do not have to automatically go to court when referred to the juvenile court system; there is a procedure called “diversion” in which a court counselor is assigned to refer the juvenile and family to appropriate and available community resources without the need for a court hearing. We all should aim to keep juveniles out of the court system but sometimes family units are so dysfunctional or have been so damaged, juvenile court intervention is a good alternative. Instead of slamming the schools and SROs, we should instead listen to their concerns and provide them with the tools necessary to properly meet the needs of juveniles, whether within the school system itself or outside of the school system if their attempts have not proven effective.”

  13. […] North Carolina, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed and vacated a juvenile’s adjudication and disposition for disorderly conduct for throwing a chair in the […]

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