Should teachers try to break up fights or are risks too great?

Another video of a student scuffle at Discovery High School in Gwinnett is making the rounds today; this one shows a boy yelling at a seated classmate in a dispute over candy money and then suddenly raining blows on his head.

The AJC's Eric Stirgus reports:

The student who attacked his classmate was charged with battery and the victim was charged with theft, school district officials said.

State data shows Discovery High reported 92 fights last school year, more than any Gwinnett high school. The school, though, had 409 instances of student incivility, which ranked near the bottom of Gwinnett’s high schools, according to the state data.

{Principal} Taylor called the incidents “atypical” of behavior at the school. He asked parents to tell their children to report any conflict that could result in violence and warned students who cheer on fights or record them will face disciplinary action.

A video last week showed a Discovery student slamming another boy to the ground in a locker room. Provided to WSB-TV, the video -- see above -- was turned over to school officials. A student mortified at the violence in the video told WSB, "It’s just ego at this point; egos and personalities saying ‘Oh I have likes. I’m famous. I can get over 2,000 likes of someone getting hurt.'"

Many parents assume teachers can quell fights, but teachers face dangers wading into a skirmish, risking not only injury to themselves but possibly hurting students in attempts to separate combatants.

Teachers also have to worry about students recording their struggles to subdue a melee. Video of teachers trying to pull kids off of one another could come across as adults manhandling students. Should teachers run into the fray or go for help? (That is what appeared to occur in the second Gwinnett school video, but that allowed the attacker more time to punch his victim repeatedly in the head.)

Speaking of school fighting, the state Supreme Court will hear a case Monday involving the Henry County Board of Education. In 2014, Henry County Schools expelled a girl for fighting; she challenged the expulsion and won in Superior Court and the Court of Appeals. Henry appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Here is the court summary of the case shortened a bit:

The Henry County Board of Education is appealing a Superior Court and Georgia Court of Appeals ruling that the school board improperly expelled a high school senior for fighting with another girl. At issue in this case is whether Georgia statutes allowing self-defense apply to school fights or whether schools may maintain a “zero tolerance” rule against school fights and ignore self-defense as justification.

FACTS: On Jan. 24, 2014, S.G. and S.T. got into a fight at Locust Grove High School. The parties characterize the fight differently. The board’s attorneys state that “rumors had been circulating” that S.G. and S.T. had a “history of not getting along as a result of jealousy and competition for friends, fueled by commentary on social media.” S.G.’s attorneys state that S.G. was a special education student, and that she and her mother, a school employee, “had reported and provided evidence of S.T.’s bullying to school administrators prior to S.T.’s assault of S.G.”

According to the facts, 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.” The video shows S.T. coming very close to touching S.G. before stepping back. S.G. then punched S.T., knocked her down and started punching her 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.

Following a hearing, the hearing officer 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, finding that the video and other evidence supported the local board’s decision that S.G. had not acted in self-defense because, although she’d had the opportunity to retreat, she had thrown the first punch.

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.

S.G. 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…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….”

ARGUMENTS: Attorneys for the school board argue the Court of Appeals erred in determining that the local board must disprove a claim of self-defense when raised by a student in the civil process of disciplinary hearings. The state Supreme Court has acknowledged “that student disciplinary matters are civil rather than criminal,” the attorneys argue in briefs. And while the school board agrees that the burden does shift to the State in a criminal case to disprove a defendant’s self-defense claim, “such is simply not the law as applied in the civil context,” the attorneys argue.

“The law in Georgia was clear until this case: In non-criminal matters, the defendant bears the burden of proving a self-defense claim.” Furthermore, the evidence does not even support a claim of self-defense in this case.

“In addition to improperly shifting the burden of proof to the local board, the Court of Appeals failed to confine its review of the matter to the evidence as established by the local board.”


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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.