The Southern Poverty Law Center is criticizing the way Gwinnett County Public Schools handles minority students after a Gwinnett County Superior Court judge overturned the district’s expulsion of a 14-year-old student over an incident that happened at his home.
The SPLC said it represented the student, who it did not identify, in an appeal of the district’s decision to permanently expel him. The organization said the expulsion had been based on a 2019 misdemeanor charge in juvenile court for an off-campus incident, and that the charge in question was later dismissed. The SPLC filed its appeal of the expulsion in Superior Court last August.
“Spending millions of taxpayer dollars each year to prop up the school-to-prison pipeline, GCPS conducts thousands of disciplinary hearings each year where students rarely have legal representation and are often suspended and expelled in violation of Georgia law,” SPLC Attorney Clarie Sherburne said. “This practice is ineffective, costly, and disproportionately impacts Black students and other students of color. As it did in this case, GCPS has historically taken the position that it possesses unlimited authority to discipline students for behavior at home. We are grateful that the Court rejected the district’s unlawful position which causes serious harm to students.”
SPLC officials said the court reversed the district’s decision regarding the student and ordered GCPS to re-enroll the pupil and expunge the disciplinary action from his student records. They also said the court ruled the district had limited authority to punish students for incidents that do not occur on school property and violated Georgia law by expelling the student over an incident that happened at his home.
The issue of whether GCPS disciplines minority students at a disproportionately higher rate than White students has been a topic of discussion and debate for years, with critics arguing that data proves it is happening. It is one of the topics at the center of ongoing discussions on equity in the school system.
GCPS spokeswoman Sloan Roach denied the allegations made by the SPLC of discrimination by district officials.
“As a school district, we have confidence in our discipline code, in our training, and in how discipline is carried out in our schools,” Roach said. “That said, our district does not condone disproportionate and disparate discipline practices.
“From reviewing the disciplinary code to the work we do to ensure educational equity for all students, GCPS is intent on gathering feedback and seeking to make improvements in the area of discipline to ensure we are providing safe and orderly schools for all students and that all discipline matters are conducted in a fair and equitable manner.”
Roach said the student at the center of the case was an eighth-grader at the time of the incident that prompted the district to expel him. The incident, she said, began as a verbal argument between the eighth-grader and another student as they were getting off their school bus at their bus stop.
“The (eighth-grade) student went into the house and returned outside with a gun,” Roach said. “The other student’s family contacted the police who investigated and charged the eighth-grader with simple assault. Had the student been an adult this behavior could have resulted in a felony charge.”
The SPLC said the court also ruled that any GCPS policy that tried to assert disciplinary authority that exceeded what state law allows is “invalid and unenforceable.”
But, Roach said state education officials have given school districts leeway in the past to handle serious incidents.
“Historically, the State Board of Education has found that local boards of education were within their discretion pursuant to OCGA 20-2-751.5c if the student’s misconduct would have been a felony if committed by an adult which is why the district took the action it did,” she said.
“Gwinnett County Public Schools takes the safety of its students very seriously and is expected to take appropriate disciplinary action when a student brings a gun into a dispute with another student. Furthermore, the school district has a responsibility to ensure that students feel safe not just while they are at school but also as they travel to and from school. In terms of disciplinary action, the student brandished a gun in front of another student and was charged with violating Rules 6C (for having a handgun) and 1DC (Disorderly Conduct) of the Student Behavior Code.”
Officials from the SPLC said this was the fourth time that a GCPS disciplinary decision has been overturned in the last year after the anti-discrimination organization challenged the decision.
The group cited another case from December, where a student — which the group only refers to as “E.G.” to protect her identity — was suspended and accused of terroristic threats because she allegedly did not report that another student had a kitchen knife in their backpack. The SPLC said the student who was suspended was not accused of either having a weapon herself or posing any threat to the school, but was facing a disciplinary hearing where she faced permanent expulsion.
The SPLC said it was retained to represent the student a day before the hearing and the district declined its request to postpone the hearing so it could have time to review records, prepare its defense of the student and prepare to call witnesses that the organization said it was allowed to call under state law. The SPLC accused the district of violating the student due process rights by denying the request to postpone the hearing. The hearing tribunal decided the student had engaged in terroristic acts, but allowed her to return to school the next day.
The district later administratively dismissed the disciplinary charges against the student and remove them from her academic record after the SPLC filed a notice of appeal, the organization said.
The SPLC did not say what the other two cases involved.
“These and other cases brought by the SPLC shine a light on the ugly reality of GCPS’ disciplinary system,” SPLC Attorney Clarie Sherburne said. “The district carelessly kicks Black students and other students of color out of school without regard for a fair process, their education or the long-term impact on their lives. Parents and students have been demanding changes in GCPS for more than a decade. Standing with our community partners, we urge the school district to end these harmful and discriminatory practices, and to reinvest funds spent on these practices on supports that ensure all students in the district can thrive.”