For the first time, Georgia’s highest court has taken up a school discipline issue, and the resulting ruling amounts to a warning for school districts that expel students for fighting in self-defense.
The opinion, issued Monday, says not all acts of violence in school are unjustified and that school discipline proceedings must distinguish between unavoidable fighting and “mutual combat.” Zero-tolerance policies for fighting have altered the life trajectories of students who were expelled for engaging in fights they could not avoid.
The case was brought by a student who was expelled by Henry County Schools several years ago. The local superior court sided with her, saying she acted in self-defense and that the school district failed to consider this.
The district appealed, and the fruit of that effort was a stinging decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals that not only agreed with the superior court but also established an onerous new precedent applying to all schools in the state: whenever a student claimed self-defense the school district would have to mount the equivalent of a criminal prosecution, and disprove the claim.
Henry’s appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court was a victory in that it sanded down that precedent, establishing that self-defense claims in schools are to be treated as civil matters, with the burden on the student to prove self-defense.
But the high court decision also offers clear support for the lower courts’ findings that self-defense is a legal right, even for children in schools, and that Henry apparently failed to acknowledge that in this case. It ordered the district to reconsider the girl’s expulsion, though by now she is an adult and already graduated.
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