Monday, June 20, 2016

Court Overturns Zero Tolerance Punishment Based on Stand Your Ground Law, But New Book Details Even Bigger Problems

In a battle of absurd public policies, a Georgia stand your ground law has trumped a school discipline policy of zero tolerance toward fighting.  Last week, a Georgia court found that school administrators violated the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law when they expelled a student for fighting.  Matt Smith writes that

S.G. . . . threw the first punch in the January 2014 scuffle — but only after her antagonist had pursued her across the school’s parking lot and backed her up against a brick pillar, according to court records. Her lawyers argued that the resulting expulsion violated state law, which lets someone use force to respond to a threat without having to retreat first.

Georgia’s Court of Appeals has agreed, ruling that the student had the right to defend herself. State law “did not require S.G. to be hit first before defending herself; nor was S.G. required to have lost the fight in order to claim self-defense,” the judges concluded. And they found school officials in Henry County, in the Atlanta-area suburbs, have a policy of expelling students “regardless of whether the student was acting in self-defense.”

The irony here is that courts so often upheld suspensions and expulsions for equally, if not more, compelling circumstances.  In other words, only a student availing him or herself of a stand your ground law has a reasonable chance of challenging zero tolerance and overly harsh discipline policies.  A student who just accidentally does the wrong thing, misbehaves in the exact way we expect of young students, or even tries to do the "right" thing can be thrown out of school with no recourse. Take Benjamin Ratner, for instance.  As I detail in my forthcoming book Ending Zero Tolerance

in the outer suburbs of our nation’s capital, an average thirteen-year-old boy named Benjamin Ratner received a note from one of his friends. In the note, Benjamin’s friend told him that she had felt suicidal over the weekend and had contemplated slitting her wrists with a knife. Apparently, the feelings persisted. She told Benjamin she brought a knife to school that morning in her bookbinder.

Benjamin took the note seriously. He knew his friend had previously attempted suicide and had even been hospitalized to deal with ongoing issues. Benjamin was worried she would use the knife to hurt herself that morning. Benjamin was smart enough to know that a real solution for her long term well-being was beyond him.  He planned to tell both her family and his own about the incident at the end of the school day and let them determine what to do in the coming days and hours. But in the short-term, he was not going to leave her safety—and in his mind possibly her life—to chance. So Benjamin asked his friend if he could take the bookbinder from her locker and put it in his own for safekeeping. She agreed.

Within a few hours, Roberta Griffith, the assistant principal, heard rumors that Benjamin’s friend “had brought a knife to school and . . . may have given it to [Benjamin].” Griffith alerted the dean of the school, Fanny Kellogg, who called Benjamin to the office to question him. Benjamin told her that he had the binder in his locker, although it is unclear that he had actually seen or touched the knife inside the binder. What was clear, however, was that Kellogg knew that Benjamin did not pose any real threat to himself or others. Kellogg sent Benjamin by himself to go get the binder and bring it back to the office. When Benjamin returned, Kellogg acknowledged that Benjamin “acted in what he saw as the girl’s best interest and that at no time did Ratner pose a threat to harm anyone with the knife.” But from then on, the school system’s thoughtfulness ended and its disciplinary process took over.

The school’s policy approach to weapons was zero tolerance. Regardless of the danger his friend faced, his desire to protect her, or any other circumstances, Benjamin’s possession of a knife was deemed a violation of school policy. The assistant principal responded to his admittedly good deed by suspending him for ten days. The principal of the school then escalated the situation and referred Benjamin to the superintendent for potential further punishment. Both the superintendent and two different school district hearing panels decided to increase his punishment. No one questioned Benjamin’s story, but they all insisted they must suspend him for the remainder of the semester—approximately three months. Benjamin would later ask the court system to reverse his punishment as irrational, but no court ever took his case seriously, claiming their hands were tied.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, however, saw nothing unreasonable about the Ratner's expulsion.  It held it was well within the school's power and there was nothing it could do.  The thrust of my forthcoming book is to unravel the irrationality of school policies like these and the courts' response to them.

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Look forward to reading your new book!

Posted by: Barbara Pazey | Jun 21, 2016 7:05:29 AM

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