McDONOUGH — There have been increased complaints about the student disciplinary practices of Henry County schools — too many for State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur.
Jones, whose office has fielded many of the complaints, said the district and its leadership have too often brought punishments against students that are too severe and damaging to their futures.
“The severity of the discipline has increased significantly,” said Jones, adding the district has doled out long-term suspensions and expulsions for what he considered minor infractions.
Those code violations include school yard fights and possessing unauthorized medications or instruments that could be considered weapons on school property.
Jones authored a provision in state law regarding weapons in school safety zones, at school functions and on school property. The Senate Bill 299 amendment, which passed overwhelmingly in both the state House and Senate, specifies how cases involving children should be handled and what constitutes a “designated felony act.”
“The General Assembly has acted,” said Jones. “We acted. I led the charge. But I am amazed to see four years later that the school systems are ignoring the changes we made four years ago.
“It was my hope that the school system would get the message and stop prosecuting these kids for offenses that are now considered minor in the legal system,” he added. “These kids aren’t going on that pipeline to prison anymore.”
School spokesman J.D. Hardin defended the district’s response to code violations.
“Our handbook clearly states the various types of offenses (Section 1-4) and the specific offenses that warrant the issue being brought before a hearing with a disciplinary hearing officer,” said Hardin. “This one-person, impartial officer hears the information presented by both parties in the case and then makes a ruling.”
Hardin said the officer’s ruling could mean a dismissing the charges or issuing punishment based on what is allowable according to the offense.
“After that is when a potential appeal process begins,” he said. “The first opportunity to appeal is before the local Board of Education. The next step after that is the State Board of Education. After that, the final step would be Superior Court.”
Next month, attorneys will defend their clients’ student records in Henry County Superior Court.
Shelly Anand is an attorney with Georgia Legal Services Program. She attests that minority students are nearly three times as likely to undergo a student disciplinary hearing as their white counterparts in Henry County.
She represents two of those students, Clarence Park-Rainy and Jonathan Carrero.
Park-Rainy, 20, recounted an experience he had one day last March as a senior at Union Grove High.
He was scheduled for oral surgery to have a wisdom tooth removed and had planned to check out of school that day for his dental appointment.
Park-Rainy said he had been in pain that morning and was taking prescribed medication for the bothersome molar.
However, his day quickly spiraled out of his control when peers noticed he had pills — just enough, he said, to get him through the morning.
Rumors spread that he may have been trying to sell the pills. He said he was called to the office and subsequently arrested on campus by a school resource officer. He missed his dental appointment and spent that night in Henry County Jail.
“Nobody wants to go to jail,” said Park-Rainy. “I hated every moment I was there.”
Park-Rainy was charged with illegal possession of a controlled substance, selling a drug and a violation of code that constitutes a felony under Georgia law.
Anand said criminal charges were dismissed in court. She said the criminal record also is being expunged for Park-Rainy, who had no prior record or incidents.
But the district refuses to clean his student records, said Anand, adding her client has already been punished. She said he was suspended 10 days, before his first disciplinary hearing was held.
She described his slip-up last year as an “administrative error” for which he was suspended a semester from Union Grove High and sent to Patrick Henry Academy, where he graduated last spring.
“It’s hard,” said Park-Rainy. “It really does hurt. What more do you want?”
Park-Rainy said, in retrospect, he should have checked in with the school about the medication. He said he was unaware of the policy and thought nothing of the issue, having seen other students take over-the-counter medications to relieve headaches and pains.
“Think before you do things,” he warned. “Just be more cautious about everything, and make wise decisions.”
That lesson continues for Park-Rainy, who is fighting to have his student record cleaned. He plans to appear with Anand in Superior Court sometime in December to appeal the district’s case against him.
Anand will also make oral arguments on behalf of Carrero next month. Carrero was 12 and a seventh-grader at Stockbridge Middle, when his case came to prominence last December.
Anand said her client had been bullied by another larger student and vented about it via text to another student.
Carrero was charged with making threats and sending threats through electronic communications. He was suspended, she said, but nothing happened to the other student who called her client “a national security threat” until the evidence was brought to light at a subsequent hearing.
Carrero is Latino. She said the other student is white.
Anand filed two Office of Civil Rights complaints in July on Carrero’s behalf.
She cited Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for race discrimination and disport treatment in a public school.
The Title VI discrimination complaint against the district is for not providing adequate language interpretative services to Carrero’s mother, who has limited English proficiency, during initial interactions in the disciplinary case. She pointed to the district’s November 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring it provide interpretative services for other language speakers.
In September, Anand filed a Title IV race discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Park-Rainy, a black youth, and others she believes are unjustly sent to Patrick Henry Academy, the district’s alternative school which is majority African-American.
Anand obtained data from the district through an Open Records request. The data revealed 685 black students compared to 245 white pupils submitted to disciplinary hearings in 2012-13.
“I think that we have identified Henry County as a problematic county when it comes to discipline of minority students — racial minorities or disabled students,” said Mike Tafelski, an attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program.
Tafelski said his caseload in Henry County is higher than those of his colleagues from 154 counties in Georgia, excluding Gwinnett, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb. He said the caseload began increasing around December 2012.
“Based upon what we are hearing and what’s coming through the door, Henry County is the most active,” said Tafelski. “From our office alone, Henry County is by far the busiest and the most egregious in the cases we’re seeing and the punishments students are receiving.”
“The typical punishment (for fights, weapons possession and unauthorized medications) is suspension for the remainder of the semester with the option to attend Patrick Henry Academy for that period, but some students are suspended for a year to a year and a half,” he continued.
Tafelski said he believes part of the problem is the district’s broadly-defined student code of conduct.
“It’s so broad that students probably wouldn’t know what constitutes a violation,” he said. “It opens the door to a lot of discretion by the school district which then can be abused.”
He said he has already seen abuses through appeals cases he has won.
“From cases we’ve seen it seems like, in my opinion, the school system has been overly punitive, particularly toward African-American students,” said Tafelski.
“The way these schools treat these kids is almost like a criminal prosecution but it doesn’t have the same burden of proof,” he added. “I really think that some of these kids in some of these communities are certainly being treated differently, and there is a racial component to it.”
Hardin said the public has ready access to the student code of conduct. He said the district’s student handbooks are provided for review by the public every year and opportunities for comments and concerns are made available.
The district’s student-parent handbook is available at www.henry.k12.ga.us.