Georgia Supreme Court: schools can’t expel for fighting in self-defense

Georgia’s highest court took up an issue that has drastically altered the life trajectories of countless students, sending a message that they cannot be expelled for fighting if they can prove they acted in self-defense.

Under state law, it is not illegal to fight, as long as the blows are landed in self-defense. The Supreme Court observed that state law applies even in schools.

“Georgia’s self-defense law does not require a person to retreat when the person reasonably believes she is at risk of harm from another’s imminent use of unlawful force,” says the decision released Monday in a case initiated by an unnamed student who was expelled by Henry County Schools. The court did not radically alter the law, but set a precedent by ruling for the first time on a school disciplinary case, effectively putting school districts on notice.

The girl, identified only by her initials S.G., was kicked out more than three years ago for fighting. During her disciplinary hearing, she said she was pushed before she punched the other student, but she didn’t use the words “self-defense” and the school district — improperly, the court said — never considered it.

Henry County was ordered to reconsider her case, and districts across the state will likely take notice. At least that’s the hope of the girl’s attorney, Mike Tafelski, of Georgia Legal Services Program. He said too many districts assert a “zero tolerance” policy with fighting, expelling all involved in a scuffle, regardless of their intent.

“The impact for the state is that self-defense is an available defense for students in disciplinary matters,” he said. “That’s always been the law in Georgia. However, many school districts before this came out, like Henry County, ignored the law.” He said school boards across the state have “completely ruined” students’ future prospects by “willfully refusing to comply with the law.”

Henry’s attorney, Megan Pearson, disagreed with just about every point that Tafelski made, but agreed with one. Although the Supreme Court didn’t actually rule on whether self-defense applied in schools, the Appeals Court had, and the high court supported that ruling. “It was kind of a gray area about whether it strictly applied,” she said, “but now we know.”

Pearson characterized the high court’s decision as a victory for schools because it dialed back the appellate court’s decision against Henry. That court, which sided with Henry County Superior Court’s decision against the school district, had imposed a strict new standard, not only ordering school districts to consider self-defense but also imposing a daunting burden of proof: Whenever self-defense was raised, that court ruled, school districts would have to disprove the claim.

That effectively put school districts in the position of criminal prosecutors, who must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a combatant was the aggressor. The Supreme Court knocked down that ruling, applying the lesser burden of proof required in civil court — more likely than not — and placing the onus on the student to prove an act was in self-defense.

“So globally this is a big win, not just for our school system but for all school systems across the state,” Pearson said.

Tafelski, the girl’s lawyer, countered that Henry County merely mitigated what would have been a big blow against school districts had the high court allowed the full weight of the appellate decision to stand. It was the school district's appeal of the superior court ruling that led to that decision.

“They’ve dug their own grave with all this,” he said.

The issue is important because studies have found that zero-tolerance policies increase the rate of suspensions and expulsions, altering the lives of still-developing children and disproportionately affecting minorities. One such study, penned by Steven Teske, chief judge of Clayton County Juvenile Court, encouraged educators to seek other strategies to curb disruptive behavior.

“The studies to date show that zero tolerance strategies have not achieved the goals of a safe and disciplined classroom,” he wrote in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. “On the contrary, some studies suggest that such strategies are harmful to students and may make schools and communities less safe.”

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