UPDATE: The school board declined a student appeal in a called meeting Monday and upheld its initial decision to suspend the student.
Liberty County parent Courtney Hernandez, who maintains her daughter was allegedly assaulted by a group of girls on a school bus ramp at Bradwell Institute on March 21, has appealed to the Georgia Department of Education. Her child’s case is scheduled to be heard by state school officials at the end of this month.
The fight resulted in the expulsion of eight students, including Hernandez’s daughter. Hernandez said the Liberty County Board of Education upheld the initial decision determined by the tribunal officer, which was to expel her child from Bradwell Institute until January 2020, and enroll her in the alternative school Horizons Learning Center.
“The short backstory is that my child was jumped at school, and due to her protecting herself, which is obvious on both school video as well as cell phone video, she was expelled from school until January 2020,” Hernandez said previously. The cell phone video can be found attached to the online story at coastalcourier.com.
In a separate local student’s appeal to the state, a Liberty County High School student’s case was remanded with instructions on July 18 – meaning the case was sent back to the local school board for specific reconsideration of the student’s claim of self-defense.
In that case, which can be found at gadoe.org under the heading State Board Decisions, the fight occurred March 11 in the common area of Liberty County High School.
The state decision outlines the facts leading up to that student’s expulsion:
“She was listening to music when she saw five girls hitting her friend. The student tried to help her. In an attempt to break up the melee, school personnel held the student's hands. Meanwhile, one of the other female students continued to hit the student in her face. The student tried to defend herself from being punched in the face.”
The student in this case was charged with fighting and suspended for 10 days before her disciplinary hearing was heard on March 18 by Liberty County School System officials. She was found guilty of fighting, expelled for the then-remainder of the 2018-19 school year through the first semester of the 2019-20 school year, with the option to enroll in alternative school. The Liberty County Board of Education upheld the disciplinary hearing officer’s decision in the case.
The state remanded the case back to the local school board because the student’s claims of self-defense and defense of her friend were not addressed. The state board’s decision follows in part:
“The fact that the student engaged in a fight does not constitute a code of conduct violation if her actions were justified as self-defense. Henry County Board of Education versus S.G., 301 Ga. 794,804 S.E.2d 427 (2017). In the instant case, the hearing officer found the student guilty of fighting. In issuing his decision, the hearing officer did not address the student's claim that she acted in self-defense and in the defense of others. Likewise, the record does not reflect whether the local board properly considered the self-defense claims. Consequently, the state board remands this case to the local board to reconsider the student's claims of self-defense and the defense of others consistent with the proper legal standard as set forth in Henry County Board of Education versus S. G., 301 Ga. 794, 804 S.E.2d 427 (20 17).”
Crystal Washington, the mother of the girl the student in the remanded appeal case was trying to protect, said her daughter was also given three months suspension and sent to Horizons Learning Center, the alternative school. Washington said her daughter’s appeal will be heard at the state level on Aug. 22.
Washington maintains that her daughter was targeted for assault by several other girls, because she played basketball at Liberty County High School and because she is physically small. Washington said her daughter had nothing to do with the “drama” over a boyfriend’s coat that apparently resulted in the girls fighting at school.
“I never got a phone call about the fight,” Washington said. She said the family has retained a lawyer to represent them. She said her husband taught in the school system after retiring from the military, but that his daughter’s situation was one reason he left the school system.
Washington continued to say a friend of hers witnessed the altercation but did not testify on her daughter’s behalf.
“A lot of people are from here and don’t want their names mentioned,” she said. “It’s their livelihood.”
Washington said her daughter was also upset when she learned that Stephanie Woods, who served as principal at LCHS last year, is now interim Chief Executive Officer at Horizons.
“It killed her spirit,” Washington said.
In the case of Hernandez’s daughter, Hernandez maintains her child was not afforded due process because school officials would not consider the self-defense claim.
Hernandez argued the self-defense claim in an initial appeal letter addressed to Superintendent Dr. Franklin Perry, which said in part:
“Testimony of witnesses for the school were inconsistent. Mr. Samuel B. Harris did not allow for a self-defense argument as he stated before Arianna presented her case ‘by her (Arianna) statement, by his (Mr. Toriano Gilbert) statement and all the videos I’ve seen. She was involved in fighting.’ Arianna does not meet this standard in accordance to the Liberty County Code of Conduct or the Bradwell Institute Student Handbook as she was neither the initiator of the physical aggression nor a mutual combatant. There is a clear lack of preponderance of the evidence that Arianna is guilty of this charge as defined. Last but not least, Mr. Samuel B. Harris, Tribunal Officer, did not consider any lesser punishments in accordance with progressive discipline plan for schools in which less restrictive punishments were considered.”
The Liberty County BOE met for a called board meeting Monday afternoon to hear a student appeal and discuss personnel in executive session. Liberty County School Superintendent Dr. Franklin Perry said the school board declined the appeal and upheld their initial decision for student suspension. Perry stressed that safety is a priority for the system: “Violence just can’t be tolerated."