State Supreme Court: Georgia students can argue self-defense to justify school fights

In school fights such as this one shared on social media, officials must consider a student’s claim of self-defense under Georgia law, according to a new ruling by the state Supreme Court.

In its first decision in a school discipline case, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled zero tolerance policies on school fighting cannot deny students the right to assert they were defending themselves. The court said Georgia law gives students the legal right to argue self-defense as a justification.

Georgia Code states, “A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when…he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force.”

In essence, the state’s highest court ruled that Georgia law on self-defense requires schools to consider that defense in spite of zero tolerance policies on fighting.

The court was asked whether the Henry County Board of Education gave proper weight to and opportunity for a self-defense claim by a Locust Grove High School student involved in a fight in 2014. The fight led to the student being expelled from Locust Grove and assigned to an alternative school.

She challenged the school board’s decision, eventually ending up in Superior Court where she won. But the Henry County school board appealed. The question eventually went to the state Supreme Court.

In a statement today, the attorney for the student, Mike Tafelski of Georgia Legal Services Program, said:

We’re very pleased that the Georgia Supreme Court, in the first school discipline case decided by the court, unanimously affirmed several important legal protections for students involved in disciplinary proceedings.  First and foremost, the Court vigorously rejected the Henry County Board of Education’s repeated attempts to make it practically impossible for a student to assert or prevail on a claim of self-defense. Instead, the Court held that self-defense is indeed applicable in a school discipline setting and that a student need not use magic words to invoke the defense. The Court confirmed that the blind enforcement of zero tolerance fighting policies, which do not consider a student’s right to self-defense and subject victim children to expulsion from school, are unlawful.

In making its decision, the Supreme Court considered video evidence and witness testimony about the actions of the student, identified in court documents as “S.G.”

“Very few children have access to lawyers when they face long-term suspension or expulsion from school and this case demonstrates the need for more lawyers to ensure that the rights of children are protected.  For more than three years and at significant taxpayer expense, the Henry County Board of Education has defended an unlawful policy against a student who graduated in 2014.  We hope that the Henry Board of Education will swiftly move to put this issue to bed by expunging S.G.’s record of this offense so that she can move forward with her life, but stand ready to once again defend S.G.’s rights if they fail to do so,” said Tafelski.

Here is the state Supreme Court’s own summary of the case:

The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled in favor of a high school senior who was expelled from her Henry County high school for fighting with another girl.

In today’s unanimous opinion, the high court has reversed a Georgia Court of Appeals decision and ruled that schools with “zero tolerance” policies against school fights must nevertheless apply the Georgia statute that gives students the right to argue self-defense as justification for the fight.

According to the facts of the case, on Jan. 24, 2014, S.G. and S.T. got into a fight at Locust Grove High School. According to testimony, the girls had a “history of not getting along as a result of jealousy and competition for friends, fueled by commentary on social media.” S.G. and her mother, a school employee, had reported accusations of S.T.’s bullying to school administrators prior to the fight. After school on Jan. 24, S.G. went to her mother’s car in the parking lot to retrieve some personal items and was on her way back to the school when she and S.T. got into a verbal confrontation. A video recording shows S.T. following behind S.G. at a clip, and the students’ gestures and body language indicate they are in a heated verbal confrontation. A school secretary later testified that S.T. was “animated” and appeared to be the aggressor by taunting S.G. and yelling, “If you want to do something, do it now,” or “We’ll do it now.”

S.G.’s mother testified that she witnessed S.G. trying to get away from the other student, as she had advised her daughter to do, but the other student was intent on fighting. The video shows S.T. coming very close to touching S.G. who held up her hand as if to indicate, “Stop.”

Due to the quality of the video, however, it is not possible to determine whether the other student pushed or made contact with S.G. before the two started fighting. The two girls ended up on the sidewalk and S.G. struck S.T. with her fist several times until S.G.’s mother pulled her off the girl. S.T. got up, again moved toward S.G., who again threw S.T. to the ground and sat on her before being pulled off a final time.

The school charged S.G. with violating Section-2, Rule #4 (physically abusing others) and Section-2, Rule #11 (violations that constitute a criminal misdemeanor) of the school district’s Secondary Student and Parent Handbook. Following a hearing, the hearing officer found S.G. guilty of violating the rules with which she was charged, “for being involved in a fight on the school grounds,” and expelled S.G. for the remainder of the school year with the opportunity to attend the alternative school, Patrick Henry Academy. S.G. appealed to the local school board, arguing that S.T. was the aggressor and she had acted in self-defense. The local board upheld the hearing officer’s findings and the expulsion. She then appealed to the State Board of Education, which affirmed the local board’s decision.

S.G. then appealed to the Superior Court, which reversed the decision, concluding that the State Board had misapplied the law regarding self-defense by requiring S.G. to show that she had no ability to retreat before using force. The Superior Court concluded that S.G.’s actions were justified because the other student had “lunged” at S.G. before S.G. responded with force. The court ordered the local board to remove the disciplinary findings from the student’s record.

The Henry County School Board then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the Superior Court’s ruling, concluding that, “The local board, through its actions and arguments, has demonstrated a policy of expelling students for fighting on school grounds regardless of whether the student was acting in self-defense. The local board’s rejection of S.G.’s justification defense is consistent with that zero tolerance policy, is inconsistent with the requirements of Georgia Code § 16-3-21 (c), is not supported by the record, and therefore, amounted to an abuse of discretion.”

Georgia Code § 16-3-21 states that, “A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when…he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force….” Subsection (c) of that statute says that any rule or policy of any state or county agency “which is in conflict with this Code section shall be null, void, and of no force and effect.” The Henry County School Board then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case to determine two issues: whether the Court of Appeals imposed an improper burden of proof upon local school boards when a student claims self-defense for fighting, and whether the appellate court erred in determining that the local board improperly rejected S.G.’s self-defense claim.

“First, we hold that the Court of Appeals announced an improper burden-shifting evidentiary rule when a local school board is considering a student’s claim of self-defense against a disciplinary charge for fighting,” Justice Robert Benham writes for a unanimous court in today’s 20-page opinion.

School disciplinary proceedings are civil matters, not criminal matters, and in a civil case, the burden of proof is upon the party asserting it. Yet the Court of Appeals improperly relied upon criminal law in concluding that once a student raises self-defense as justification for fighting, the burden of proof is upon the school board to disprove that defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

“In accordance with the general rule for the burden of proof in civil cases, when a student raises an affirmative defense in a school disciplinary proceeding, the student bears the burden of proving that defense,” the opinion says. “Unlike the burden of proof in a criminal case, the burden does not shift to the local board of education to refute the student’s defense.”

As to whether the Court of Appeals properly reversed the ruling of the local board, “we agree with the Court of Appeals that the record does not reflect whether the local board properly considered the self-defense evidence or, even if it did, whether it properly applied the law regarding self-defense,” the opinion says. “The Court of Appeals, however, improperly made its own findings with respect to S.G.’s self-defense claim,” exceeding its scope of review.

“Where the Court of Appeals veered off course was in substituting its own findings of fact instead of remanding the case to the local board to apply the proper law to the record evidence and reach its own findings,” the opinion says. Therefore, “We reverse the Court of Appeals decision and remand the case with direction that it remand the matter to the Superior Court with instructions to remand to the local board for further findings and conclusions after applying the appropriate law to the evidence in accordance with this opinion.”

Attorneys for Appellant (local board): A.J. “Buddy” Welch, Jr., Megan Pearson

Attorneys for Appellee (S.G.): Michael Tafelski, Lisa Krisher, Phyllis Holmen, Robert Ashe III

 

Reader Comments 0

83 comments
USA&UK;,,JOBS
USA&UK;,,JOBS


as Jesus explained I'm in shock that some people can earn $8528 in four weeks on the computer . .  see more...♪♪♪♥♪♪♪ _a_ ♪♪♪♥♪♪♪.♪♪♪♥♪♪♪ ..²²²²\www.Google.Start.Money.com

Angel Pratt Ervin
Angel Pratt Ervin

I wish Alabama would pass this law. As it stands: My child was being bullied, as long as she was getting hit and telling the teachers and principle, it was fine, but if she defends herself it is now a fight since it takes two to fight and thereby suspended as such. Question: who is going to stand there and get hit? Who is going to continually get hit and do nothing more than tell?(which leads to more bullying,by the way)

Noemead Semloh
Noemead Semloh

This should be quite obvious. One tool removed from the pipeline to prison.

Catina Cooper
Catina Cooper

Facts lol!! and Not Discretionary action which is how the entire state operates everything ...

Cordele Rolle
Cordele Rolle

This only makes sense to everyone not afraid to look at facts.

Kema Leslie
Kema Leslie

Finally bullied children won't be penalized for defending themselves. They were in a damned if you do damned if you don't situation.

Kara Morey
Kara Morey

\U0001f44f Finally! Zero tolerance takes away common sense. It's about time someone stepped up against this ridiculous policy!

Jimmy Davis
Jimmy Davis

We all have Constitutional Rights no matter our age,race,ect,ect but the school systems do not see it that way .If you get in a fight you are defending yourself but they don't care,zero tolerance you have no rights.As long as parents are spineless on this issue school systems will continue to violate your childs rights.Kids have zero tolerance but when the school system screws up that zero tolerance does not come into play.Houston County knows that REAL well.

Chris Knowles
Chris Knowles

About time ... this is how the bullies have been protected for decades. I have always taught my girls to walk away first BUT if you feel threatened, defend yourself and end it.

Danny Fulmer
Danny Fulmer

I will always stand by my kids for defending themselves and others that cant regardless of the law!

Steve Roon
Steve Roon

An instance where common sense prevails. I was never a fan of zero tolerance policies and thank goodness the GA Supreme Court has now weighed in on the side of common sense.

Jenn Le Roy
Jenn Le Roy

I have a son who is disabled. When he was in first grade, three 6th graders ganged up on him and picked on him for a few days. He told the after school teachers. Nothing was really done. So then one of the boys started shoving my son around. A 12 years old shoving a disabled 6 year old around. My son jumped on top of his back and beat him in the head as hard as he could. And then school told me my son had to be suspended. The entire admin got an earful from me and so did the BOE. And I pulled my son out of school and ended up homeschooling him the rest of that year even though I was a single working mom. This new rule is great. I agree with it completely.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Keepingthemhonest Did you actually read this? Yes, the high court remanded it -- because it ruled the Henry Board of Education failed to give due consideration to the self-defense claim.

Also, you understand that the summary with this comes from the state Supreme Court? In other words, this is the court's own description of what it ruled. I did not write this summary. 


The court issued this summary:



The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled in favor of a high school senior who was expelled from her Henry County high school for fighting with another girl. In today’s unanimous opinion , the high court has reversed a Georgia Court of Appeals decision and ruled that schools with “zero tolerance” policies against school fights must nevertheless apply the Georgia statute that gives students the right to argue self-defense as justification for the fight.


As to whether the Court of Appeals properly reversed the ruling of the local board, “we agree with the Court of Appeals that the record does not reflect whether the local board properly considered the self-defense evidence or, even if it did, whether it properly applied the law regarding self-defense,” the opinion says. 

Koba Solzhenitsyn
Koba Solzhenitsyn

This welcome ruling from the Supreme Court of Ga. will send  many members of the Orwellian NEA off in search of a safe space. Some may even chew a breakfast pastry into a "L" shape reflecting their frustration. Or they may fiddle with a Tweety Bird key chain, thus triggering the zero tolerance for weapons policy. 

Robbie Wilkes
Robbie Wilkes

It should. In most cases "zero tolerance" is zero intelligence. If someone attacks someone, they should defend themselves. Period. There's a difference between two instigators, and some punk attacking another kid in the hall. Blaming and punishing BOTH is ridiculous!

Carol Sheridan Dial
Carol Sheridan Dial

Another measure to control violence in schools shut down. Be very afraid. It's open season on fighting in school now.

Gunluvr
Gunluvr

Good, finally boys will be allowed to be boys, without interference. A long time coming back.

Jody Carter
Jody Carter

Sad to say, but you have to put a bully in their place, or take their endless abuse.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Good ruling.  About time someone interjected a little common sense back into the school system.  Zero tolerance policies have allowed school administrators to abdicate their responsibilities and as many others have noted below, the victims of zero tolerance are the kids who get attacked by the school bully and then again by the school system.

Back in my day, when a teacher broke up a fight, they tried to find out who started the fight and if it could be determined that one student was the aggressor, they got the worst of the punishment.  Fast forward thirty years to the era of zero tolerance, and the teacher no longer asks questions.  Break up a fight, take them to the office, and the principal hides behind the school policy manual and punished both kids equally.

"Yes Mr. and Mrs. Parent, I know that your child was sitting quietly in his desk when he was attacked from behind.  But after two minutes of getting beat on, he struck the other student.  We can't have that...."

David Abraham
David Abraham

Growing up the teachers knew who the bullies were. If a fight broke out and bully was getting the crap beat out of them well lets say that they were slow to break it up or they walked the other way with a smile on their face...

Sandra Mix
Sandra Mix

Good. A student should be able to defend him or her self instead of being a bully's punching bag

Kyle Holsinger
Kyle Holsinger

I attended high school in Ohio and graduated in 2003. It was always my understanding that if we were struck twice that we could defend ourselves from that point until help arrived. Never really saw it in action, but did hear kids refer to it.

CindyandBubbie Gordon
CindyandBubbie Gordon

When I was in school fights were broken up and kids taken to the gym , boxing gloves on and settled it then and there made to shake hands after and most became pals !

hambojambo30252
hambojambo30252

Spent a lot of tax payer money to determine what my momma and daddy taught me and common sense dictates. Well done, Henry County on spending tax payer money to defend a poor policy that eliminates the need to exercise discretion and apply judgement to student disciplinary actions (I say with sarcasm :-) ). 

Harlequin
Harlequin

The students might as well defend themselves. The inmates are running the asylum. 

Debra Payne
Debra Payne

About time your kid's get bullied and have to walk away.

Bryan Sorohan
Bryan Sorohan

As it should. Zero tolerance has become zero thinking.

Fiona Mia
Fiona Mia

It's about time! Everyone has the right to defend them self!

Dexter Porter
Dexter Porter

Thank you SCOG a student should be able to defend themselves.

Ronald Mexico
Ronald Mexico

Hell yeah seems fair bullies don't care if they get suspended so let's fight since folks like to bully people

Melissa Ann
Melissa Ann

My son was attacked at school by a boy that was just looking for a fight, he even admitted he did not know my son, had no issue with him, he just wanted to go back to the alternative school he had just been transferred from. My son had no choice but to defend himself while teachers looked on and did NOTHING, they said they were afraid to break up the fight. Because my son did not just lay down and take the beating by a boy twice his size and because he gave better than he got, he was charged and put on probation. I asked the judge what my son should have done, I asked why he did not have the RIGHT to defend himself from an attack. I was told juveniles do not have the right to self defense, he was expected to just allow the attack and not protect himself from injury. Thankfully the probation officer recognized that my son did nothing wrong and he released him from probation early but he should have never been charged to begin with. I'm glad to see they are finally recognizing that just because you are under 18, that doesn't mean you do not have the right to defend yourself. It is just common sense.

Jenn Le Roy
Jenn Le Roy

I have a son who is disabled. When he was in first grade, three 6th graders ganged up on him and picked on him for a few days. He told the after school teachers. Nothing was really done. So then one of the boys started shoving my son around. A 12 years old shoving a disabled 6 year old around. My son jumped on top of his back and beat him in the head as hard as he could. And then school told me my son had to be suspended. The entire admin got an earful from me and so did the BOE. And I pulled my son out of school and ended up homeschooling him the rest of that year even though I was a single working mom. This new rule is great. I agree with it completely.

Barbara Weaver Penland
Barbara Weaver Penland

Yes! I told my son's middle school how ridiculous these rules are when my son got suspended for "fighting," even though it was clear that the other kid threw the first punch. I said, "I understand you have little choice, but he's not in trouble with me. He'll be at home sleeping late and playing video games for 3 days."

Beverly Wilkerson
Beverly Wilkerson

I don't remember ONE fight when I was in high school. That was in the '50's. Boy, behavior has really changed for the worse!!