Many readers were shocked when I wrote this summer about Jorge Santa-Hernandez, the 15-year-old Harrison High School freshman facing charges, including two felonies, for what his parents called justifiable self-defense against a senior who bullied him.
Today, all charges were dismissed against Jorge, according to his attorney Mitch Skandalakis. “Cobb threw out all the charges,” said Skandalakis.
“I can confirm that the case you asked about was dismissed, but we cannot speak further on a Juvenile Court matter,” said Cobb DA spokeswoman Kim Isaza.
Both teens had been asked by the court to write a letter about their role in the incident. Since Jorge complied and the other teen did not, the district attorney asked the court to dismiss the charges against him, said Skandalakis. Neither Jorge nor his parents attended this morning’s hearing in a Cobb juvenile court.
Skandalakis said his investigation in this case – including a review of discipline records in Cobb Schools – shows Cobb minimizes bullying incidents and treats kids who fight back the same as students who initiate the harassment. That, he said, is illegal and the Santa-Hernandez family is looking into suing for wrongful arrest.
“We are going to be looking at all of that, but my main concern right now is that the way Cobb operates as far bullying must be completely revamped,” said father Jorge Santa, in a telephone interview after he learned charges against his son were dismissed.
“I was approached by other Cobb parents who were victims of this same policy of zero tolerance,” said Santa, who is an Atlanta Police Department investigator. “The school administrators are not looking at these incidents as bullying. They are reporting them as fights rather than bullying or harassment. Then, they don’t have to do any investigation. They just want to suspend everybody. The victim is victimized twice, once by the bully and then by the school system.”
In 2017, the state Supreme Court ruled, “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.”
“When they write their police reports in Cobb Schools, they don’t use the word bullying. They use words like horseplay and other nonsense like that. This is a pattern and practice of Cobb County,” said Skandalakis. “They are not enforcing the bullying laws.”
During the final day school in May, Jorge was sitting in a computer lab when two seniors he did not know approached him.
According to his father:
My son is barely 100 pounds, the typical skinny kid with glasses. Picking is one thing. These two seniors go into his bag and steal his food. They start calling him names. One kid made a remark, ‘If we were in Africa, you would be picking up cotton and I would be picking up diamonds.’ My son still tries to deflect this with humor, but then his friend warns him they are walking toward him, and one has his hand behind his back holding something. Then, the senior shoots Silly String at my son’s face. My son jumped up and hit him three times and, when the kid turns around, my son put him in rear headlock and he falls, and my son let go.” (Silly String is a plastic goo that shoots in strands from a pressurized can.)
After his son was sent home from school, Santa met with assistant principal Art O’Neill, recording the tense session on his phone.
While Harrison High generally agreed with Jorge’s account of what happened after interviewing student witnesses, O’Neill avoided calling it harassment or bullying during the conversation, saying the seniors were “picking at Jorge.”
O’Neill also maintained Jorge should not have responded physically, telling Santa, “Jorge had options. He chose not to take those options … Your son had every opportunity to make the teacher aware of the harassing situation. Jorge could have wiped the Silly String off of him and gone to the teacher and said, ‘This needs to stop.’”
But Mike Tafelski of Georgia Legal Services Program, the prevailing attorney in last year’s state Supreme Court case affirming a student’s right to self-defense, told me:
The law doesn’t say that. If the child has a reasonable belief that the use of force is necessary to defend himself when that aerosol can is aimed at him, he has a right to stand his ground. The question is what constitutes reasonable belief,” said Tafelski. “Would it be a reasonable belief when someone who’s a high school freshman is being bullied and a senior pulls out a canister from behind his back?
When Santa reminded O’Neill on the recording that state law now requires schools to consider whether students acted in self-defense, O’Neill told him, “My job is school code. And in the student code of conduct, Jorge’s action was not justified.”
In response to this case, a Cobb Schools spokeswoman said, “Bullying is a serious issue which is dealt with by Cobb County administrators in accordance with Georgia Code O.C.G.A 20-2-751.4. Each and every Cobb administrator has been trained to review any student discipline infraction objectively, with a reliance on the facts which are available through investigation. Criminal charges which result from discipline infractions are investigated by Cobb County School District police in accordance with appropriate state law. Cobb County School District police officers have, on average, 26 years of experience. We proudly stand behind their expertise, judgment, and enforcement of the law."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.