The parents of a Harrison High student are suing two school employees over a controversial 2018 incident in which Cobb pursued criminal prosecution of their son for fighting back against alleged bullying. While the parents said their son was defending himself, the school called it a criminal assault.
A freshman at the time, Jorge Santa-Hernandez received a school suspension and faced criminal charges after he attacked a senior he said bullied and threatened him on the last day of school.
The criminal charges against the 15-year-old sparked allegations from other parents that Cobb County Schools minimized bullying and punished victims. The criminal charges against the teen ended up getting tossed by the Cobb County district attorney.
Now, a civil suit filed by the Santa-Hernandez family in Cobb Superior Court earlier this month targets Harrison High School assistant principal Arthur O’Neill and school district police officer Ivant Fields. The suit alleges false imprisonment for the time in which the pair questioned Jorge without allowing him to call his parents, along with intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.
“We were getting no response from the school district in our efforts to resolve some of these issues,” said Mitch Skandalakis, who has represented the Santa-Hernandez family since 2018.
The family is seeking damages. “These people dragged this poor kid through the mud. In addition to Jorge being bullied by these two kids, the school bullied him...We want compensation for Jorge for them doing the wrong thing. But, more importantly, we want this to stop,” said Skandalakis.
“It would be great if they changed the way they handle these bullying cases,” said Jorge Santa, the teen’s father and an Atlanta police officer on Tuesday. “I would hate to see the same thing happening to another kid. My son is a senior next year at Harrison, but I have a younger son who will be a freshman.’’
Asked for a response to the suit, a Cobb spokeswoman said, “We look forward to the facts of this case being adjudicated in court, not through traditional or social media."
A window into the incident came from a recording Santa made of his lengthy May 21, 2018, meeting with O’Neill and Fields. On the recording, both sides generally agreed on what led to the physical altercation between Santa’s son and a senior on the final day of classes.
Jorge did not know the two older teens who approached him; his PE class had been reassigned to the computer lab room, along with a class of upperclassmen so there were around 60 students in the room.
Where the father and school officials diverge: Santa said the behavior of the seniors – which included name calling, going into his son’s bag to take and eat his lunch and shooting him in the face with Silly String – constituted bullying. However, Fields and O’Neill described it as “joking around” and “picking at Jorge.”
“It is easier for them to classify these things as something other than bullying, as horseplay,” said Skandalakis. “ I truly don’t understand the reason. It may be easier to say, ‘You were fighting. You threw the first punch.’”
“The school did nothing in terms of investigating,” said the attorney, citing an email the teacher in the computer lab sent to school leadership saying other students in the class wanted to “come forth and report that Jorge was being bullied.”
Despite having students in the class willing to confirm Jorge’s account, Skandalakis contends Harrison High doubled down on the teen and referred the case for criminal prosecution.
“The DA did an investigation and interviewed every child they could find and, of those interviewed, most who saw the incident supported Jorge’s version,” said Skandalakis. “The DA dismissed charges because they didn’t have a case.”
“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,” said Santa at the time. “They start calling him names. 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.”
On the recording, O’Neill insisted Jorge was in the wrong, saying, “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 the state Supreme Court has ruled students have a right to self-defense if they have a reasonable belief that the use of force is necessary to defend themselves.
Santa said his son has had good experiences with the teachers and counselors at Harrison. He faults the administration for underreporting bullying to prevent low scores on the state report card. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of school district bullying reports to the Georgia Department of Education has shown Cobb with an unusually low rate of bullying.
“The school ratings affect everything in the county, from real estate prices to taxes. That is why they play with these numbers so much,” said Santa. “That needs to stop, and, hopefully, the lawsuit will accomplish that.”
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