Ruling expected in student fight case

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

For the first time ever, the Georgia Supreme Court is hearing a student disciplinary case — and it involves a Henry County student.

Oral arguments were heard in mid-May in “Henry County Board of Education vs. S.G.” and a ruling could come at any time between now and November, according to Michael Tafelski of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit legal aid firm that is representing the student.

In January of 2014 the student was involved in a fight at Locust Grove High School, where she was in the second semester of her senior year. After a standard disciplinary hearing she was expelled and finished the year at Patrick Henry Academy (now EXCEL Academy).

Claiming self-defense, she sued the school system and a Superior Court judge ruled in her favor. The school system appealed, and in May of 2016 the Georgia Court of Appeals also sided with the student, leading up to the current venue.

The school board is represented in this case by its regular legal counsel, which is the McDonough firm of Smith, Welch, Webb & White. In response to an open records request from the Times, the firm stated that a total of $15,200 has been billed to the school board for the two appeals. A school board vote is not required to authorize the appeals but a decision is made in conjunction with the superintendent.

Should she win, the student obviously cannot have her actual time at her high school given back to her. But Tafelski said the legal action was taken in hopes of correcting her school record by forcing the district to remove the infraction.

“She is in this now for, hopefully, the other students who come behind her — that they won’t be denied a fair hearing and the protections the law allows.”

Her original goal was to join the military, but Tafelski said she did not receive the support she need to prepare properly for the ASVAB, a standardized test for military applicants. “The impact of this case really derailed her military pursuits,” he said.

The Georgia Legal Services Program operates statewide, except for the five largest metro-Atlanta counties, with a number of offices in various cities. Unlike most of his colleagues who handle cases in three or more counties each, Tafelski said he works virtually full-time on cases in Henry County, which his firm has identified as a “problem county.”

The school system’s position is that the case is vital to ensuring its ability to provide safety and security for all students. At the core of the legal argument, from the other side, is whether the district can enforce a zero-tolerance fighting policy that doesn’t take into account self-defense.

“In this case they’ve enforced policies that conflict with state law,” said Tafelski. “They have a history of being very punitive in their disciplinary process.”

The school system, in its own statement to the Times, pointed out that disciplinary cases have been cut in half in recent years. Tafelski concurred with that assessment, though he suggested it has less to do with the administration’s own work than the watchdog efforts of his organization to keep it under a microscope.

“Henry County has already changed some of its policies because of this case,” he said. “It’s already had an impact. They’ve been under intense scrutiny and pressure, and that’s what has forced them to make these changes.”

Every student summoned to a disciplinary hearing with the Board of Education — there were 1,060 such cases in 2011-2012 and 539 in the most recent school year — faces the possibility of permanent expulsion from school. Those cases result in a guilty verdict about 96 percent of the time, Tafelski said, with 87 percent of them getting at least a suspension for the remainder of the current semester and about half being suspended beyond that.

Many of these hearing are for what he called minor infractions, with fewer than 2 percent bringing in their own legal counsel because they aren’t aware that it’s necessary or they just can’t afford it. Many local attorneys advise parents to take the money they would spend on legal fees and enroll their children in private school because they will likely lose anyway, Tafelski said, although having a lawyer helps create a record that can be useful on the student’s behalf down the road.

Other districts already recognize self-defense as a valid defense “because they have to,” Tafelski said, “This school board has a ‘sky is falling’ attitude but the data doesn’t reflect that.” He cited national experts who say that zero-tolerance policies actually make schools less safe because they treat victims the same as assailants.

Tafelski hopes to get an opinion from the high court before the start of the new school year.

“I think taxpayers want the students to be able to act in self-defense and not be expelled for doing so,” he said. “They’re [the school system] going in the right direction and I credit them for that. But if we hadn’t been there I don’t know if they would have been willing to do that.”