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.

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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

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