On July 21, the Georgia State Board of Education reversed a decision by the Liberty County Board of Education to suspend a seventh-grade Black student from Lewis Frasier Middle School, ruling that the suspension violated his due process rights.
State board members also instructed Liberty County schools officials to conduct a new hearing for the student, who is referred to as “A.K.” in the proceedings.
Following a disciplinary hearing on Feb. 3, 2022, that lasted less than 30 minutes, A.K. was suspended for the remainder of the 2021–22 school year. At the time of his suspension, A.K. was a student making As and Bs with no prior disciplinary record.
A.K. was placed at Horizons Learning Center, an alternative school, for the remainder of the school year for Threat/Intimidation and Bullying (Cyber) in violation of the Liberty County Code of Conduct (“Code of Conduct”).
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), A.K. was accused of sending threatening texts to another student, despite testifying that he called the student afterward to let him know that he was not serious. The alleged incident took place off campus during nons-chool hours. The state board ruled that the Liberty County Board of Education deprived A.K. of his constitutional and statutory rights to due process by suspending him without reasonable and sufficient notice of the allegations against him, as required by law. The SPLC represented him during his appeal.
The state board ruling removes the disciplinary offense from A.K.’s record. It also reaffirms the important precedent protecting and preventing future students from being deprived of their due process rights, SPLC officials said.
“School districts, like Liberty County, have become reliant and comfortable with suspending and expelling students without sufficient evidence or fundamental fairness, as required by law. Exclusionary discipline serves no pedagogical purpose and only perpetuates harm on our children,” said Mike Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s Children Rights Practice Group. “Across Georgia, as evident in this case, school disciplinary hearings are merely a sham exercise used to achieve a predetermined outcome based on an accused student’s presumption of guilt. The educational rights of students — disproportionately students of color — are routinely ignored and trampled by school districts that take advantage of a system where children typically lack access to a lawyer. We will continue to stand with students who are seeking educational justice.”
As the appeal process lingered on for months, A.K.’s mom paid to enroll him in a local private school, but he had to start the entire year over to ensure his credits would transfer.
According to the SPLC, in Liberty County, Black students represent 53.2% of students enrolled but 66.5% of those who experience school suspensions. Even Black preschool students are suspended and expelled at rates that are higher than their white counterparts.
“This has opened my eyes and ears to these issues,” A.K.’s mom said in a statement provided by the SPLC. “I have been having conversations with Black families across the county who have experienced educational injustices and are suffering in silence in fear of retaliation. But I am not scared, and I hope my son’s case can highlight the injustice in our school system so that future students are not similarly harmed.”
LCSS Deputy Superintendent Zheadric Barbra said the BOE generally does not comment on the specifics of any action involving one of their students but would comment on the matter already made public by the state BOE.
Barbra said a staff member of the LCSS was approached by a student who had been sent alarming text messages in which another student was labeled as a target of being killed. When approached, the alleged sender of the text message admitted to sending it. Administration reacted immediately and initiated measures to protect students and discipline the student involved.
“The State Board of Education found that the Liberty County Board of Education met its burden of proof and found that the student was ‘making a threat via social media or any other means of electronic threat’ and upheld the decision that the student violated the Code of Conduct as to Threat/ Intimidation and Bullying (Cyber),” Barbra wrote in a statement. “In doing so, the State Board noted that the student admitted that he was guilty of Threat/Intimidation and that he admitted sending text messages that by their very nature would be taken as a threat by anyone who would receive them. The State Board also found that the punishment imposed by the Liberty County Board of Education was appropriate to the actions by the student.”
Barbra said what the state took issue with was the official letter, which was sent to the student prior to his hearing, and said that the letter was not specific as to the time, method and manner of the threat and that he was allowed to have another hearing.
“Administration and staff of Liberty County Board of Education reacted swiftly and appropriately in response to a significant threat to one of its students. Although we are disappointed in the result by the State Board, a rehearing of the issues will result in the original findings being affirmed,” Barbra wrote.
Barbra said the LCSS’ primary intent and purpose for the safety and health of all students has been maintained and sustained by the action taken without the need or desire to prolong and delay an amicable and beneficial conclusion to these matters for all concerned.