Georgia Court: Students Can Stand Their Ground

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In a case pitting one controversial public policy against another, a Georgia court has found school administrators violated the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law when they expelled a student for fighting.

The student, identified only as S.G. in court papers, threw the first punch in the January 2014 scuffle — but only after her antagonist had pursued her across the school’s parking lot and backed her up against a brick pillar, according to court records. Her lawyers argued that the resulting expulsion violated state law, which lets someone use force to respond to a threat without having to retreat first.

Georgia’s Court of Appeals has agreed, ruling that the student had the right to defend herself. State law “did not require S.G. to be hit first before defending herself; nor was S.G. required to have lost the fight in order to claim self-defense,” the judges concluded. And they found school officials in Henry County, in the Atlanta-area suburbs, have a policy of expelling students “regardless of whether the student was acting in self-defense.”

Mike Tafelski

Mike Tafelski

S.G.’s lawyer, Mike Tafelski, called the decision a blow to “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies. Critics say many of those policies are enforced in ways that disproportionately affect minorities and disabled students.

“It’s not just Henry County. We see it across the state, where county handbooks conflict with Georgia self-defense statutes,” said Tafelski, an attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program. With this “very clear” appeals court decision, school districts will need to rewrite their codes of conduct to take self-defense into account, he said.

“If they’re ignoring it and saying, ‘No, we don’t care who started it, we don’t care who finished it, we don’t care who was the bully, we don’t care who was the victim, we just know you were both involved in this and we’re going to discipline you’ – the court has specifically said that is illegal and unlawful, and an abuse of discretion,” Tafelski said.

The school district has asked Georgia’s Supreme Court to take up the case. A.J. Welch, a lawyer for the Henry County school board, said he wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Tafelski’s client graduated from high school in 2014 but has pursued the lawsuit to clear her record. S.G. ended up graduating from an alternative school, and she said the expulsion effectively kept her from joining the armed forces, as she had planned.

“If you have a disciplinary record, it’s kind of hard,” S.G. said. In addition, she said she failed the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, the military’s skills test for high-school students. In her regular high school, she would have had help to prepare for the test, but that wasn’t offered in the alternative school, she said.

S.G. was also charged with a misdemeanor for fighting in public, but the count was dismissed by a juvenile court judge after she wrote an essay on her future plans, she said. She still hopes to attend college — something that the court decision might make easier.

The fight that got her expelled occurred when she was confronted by another student outside the school building at the end of the day’s classes. S.G. tried to walk away from the argument, only to have the other student follow her. They ended up at a brick post near the school’s front door, where the other student “briefly stepped towards S.G. and came very close to touching S. G. before stepping back,” according to the appeals court’s decision.

That’s when S.G. punched the other girl, knocking her down, sitting on her and punching her until S.G.’s mother — a school employee — pulled her off. Video from a school camera and the testimony of a school secretary supported S.G.’s account, but a school hearing officer expelled S.G. anyway.

The appeals court decision made her happy, “Because I feel like I wasn’t wrong in what I did,” S.G. said. She hopes it will lead to students being “treated fairly and right” in the future, “and that the right decisions will be made when it comes to disciplinary actions.”

Tafelski has challenged similar actions on behalf of other students in Henry and other Georgia counties. In an earlier case, the state Board of Education — to which students can appeal disciplinary action — found students had a right to self-defense, Tafelski said. But it ruled against S.G., who then sued the district. A state judge overturned the expulsion in 2015, and the appeals court decision on May 31 upheld that ruling.

Zero tolerance policies typically involve swift, predetermined punishments — including arrests in some cases — for fighting, weapons or contraband. They’re aimed at deterring classroom disruptions and violent acts. But several studies have found they result in disproportionate rates of suspension or expulsion for African-American and Latino youth, raising the odds of them dropping out or ending up behind bars, while doing little to improve the learning environment. The federal Department of Education has urged schools to rethink those policies.

“What this decision will help do is hopefully make for a fairer process and allow for less racial disparity in how students are being disciplined,” Tafelski said. “It will have that broader impact, assuming the decision stands.”

“Stand your ground” laws became the subject of furious national debate after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teen shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer. The volunteer, George Zimmerman, argued that he had been forced to shoot Martin in self-defense after the two got into a fight, and a jury acquitted him of murder in Martin’s death.

Tafelski said Georgia courts recognized the principle for decades before state lawmakers formally put it on the books in 2006.

“It is controversial,” he said. “But I will say that it’s in the law here in Georgia, and all people — including children in schools — should be able to utilize the law in their defense. That’s what was required in this situation.”

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