Steve Reba: Enter the Pipeline

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The thirteen-year-old sat at the defense table with his mother.  The school principal, serving as prosecutor and the district’s sole witness, occupied the table to their left.  Three administrators from other district schools stared down from their elevated bench. Sitting with the tribunal, indistinguishable in both presence and role, was the hearing officer.

When the boy’s mother attempted to ask the principal a question, he would invoke his role as prosecutor.  When the inquiry was directed at the hearing officer, he would explain that he was not a witness. Denied the opportunity to speak in any meaningful manner, and recognizing the futility of objection, the boy and his mother retreated to silence. The video-recorded hearing went on like this for nearly two hours.

The facts were undisputed.  Two years earlier, the boy was adjudicated delinquent for an offense that happened in his home.  For those two years, the boy continued to attend public school.  Two weeks prior to this hearing the district somehow became aware of the old offense and decided to initiate expulsion proceedings using a law that addresses a student’s off-campus behavior. The law was designed to remove students when their behavior endangered the school or disrupted the educational process.

Not a single teacher or student, or anyone who knew the boy personally, testified.  The perfunctory process hit a crescendo with the principal’s generic closing argument on his authority and school safety.

“No, the act didn’t take place on school grounds.  No, the act didn’t take place during school hours.  No, the act didn’t take place in the school district.  The fact that he was eleven doesn’t matter either.  What matters is the safety of those middle school students, my middle school students.  And, I can’t have someone with a felony charge walking my halls.  I just can’t have it, period.”

The boy slouched.  The mother looked befuddled.  The tribunal, barely holding back their urge to give the principal a standing ovation, leveled the boom.  The boy was permanently expelled without an alternative education.

The mother, now shouldering what used to be the district’s burden of providing her son with an education, was in a panic.  The boy was at home during the day.  The home was in a rough area.  The boy was unsupervised.

She called us during the lunch break of one of her two jobs.  She explained the situation and that she had looked into private schools in the district, but could come nowhere close to affording the tuition.  She begged for help.

With her call coming on the eighteenth day of a twenty-day appeal timeline, we moved on it quickly.

The appeal proved to be successful.  The permanent expulsion was lifted and the boy returned to school.  A recent conversation with his mother revealed that the new school year has started off well.

But, for every one success there are exponentially more removals where there is no intervention.  The images and sounds from the boy’s hearing pervade the state.  The impunity and disregard for the consequences of expulsion resonate in the places where these students end up.  Places with visitation hours and guard towers.

Enter the pipeline.

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Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth.  The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public

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