Houston student's penalty draws scrutiny

WARNER ROBINS — There are two versions of what happened at Houston County High School the afternoon of Feb. 9 surrounding a fight at the school.

Either way, the end result is the same. A 15-year-old ninth-grader at the school was suspended for two semesters and sent to alternative school.

The student, who is black and in special education, was one of several students who were watching a fight at the school and he was taking video on his cell phone, said Richard Boykin, the family’s lawyer. Boykin said a white assistant principal at the school came from behind the student, placed him in a chokehold and dragged him backward to a wall.

In response, the student told the assistant principal that he should “not put his hands on him again and if he did, he would f-----g sue,” Boykin said.

The remark resulted in the student being sent to alternative school for the remainder of the current semester, as well as the first semester of the 2010-11 school year.

The student does not have a history of violence and has not previously been suspended. He was simply reacting to the situation he found himself in, Boykin said.

“Most people would respond with force. His was one of profanity. It was excessive to punish him like that,” Boykin said.

Boykin said according to the assistant principal’s account, he acted in response to the student’s arm in the air as he fought through the crowd.

The school’s response

School officials said the student’s account of what happened differs from that of the assistant principal involved in the incident.

According to the assistant principal’s report, he grabbed the student by the waist during the fight, said Superintendent David Carpenter, rather than in a chokehold, as the student alleges.

While Carpenter declined to discuss the matter in detail, citing student privacy laws, he acknowledged an incident occurred and agreed with the assistant principal’s actions in regard to the matter.

No investigation of the assistant principal is currently taking place, Carpenter said.

Assistant Superintendent for School Operations Robin Hines said the use of profanity in front of school staff members is a serious offense and can result in a range of punishments for students, from facing a school review committee to attending a tribunal hearing.

“We don’t allow students to use profanity when addressing faculty at all,” Hines said, who also would not comment on the matter.

However, Boykin said four student witnesses confirm the student’s story in written statements. Boykin also said he has photos of the student’s neck taken shortly after the incident in question.

“I don’t believe these kids are lying,” Boykin said.

The tribunal

A tribunal hearing addressing the incident was held March 2, and the punishment was upheld, Boykin said. The next day, the student’s mother contacted Carpenter to ask if her son could continue to attend school, pending appeal.

Under state law, the “local school superintendent may suspend enforcement of the suspension or expulsion ordered by the hearing officers, panels, or tribunals pending the outcome of any appeal to the local board.”

The request was denied.

“The administrator came on to address the problem (in a way) he thought was appropriate. We felt like he did, too.” Carpenter said.

An appeal to the tribunal decision was filed March 22, said Jennifer Falk, the education chair for the Georgia State Conference NAACP who has been working with the family.

The Houston County Board of Education will listen to the appeal during executive session at a called meeting April 8.

A larger issue?

Edward DuBose, president for the Georgia State Conference NAACP, believes the incident is indicative of a trend for minority students to be suspended and placed in alternative school at a higher rate than their white classmates.

According to data collected by the NAACP, of 338 suspensions in Houston County in 2009, 235 of those students were black.

According to information from the Georgia Department of Education, 292 high school students attended alternative school in Houston County during the 2008-09 school year. Of that number, 179 students were black.

For the current school year, 378 middle and high school students have received alternative school placements in Houston County. Of those, 24 were sent to alternative school for profanity to staff — the third most common reason, according to data from the Houston County Board of Education.

“Whether (the assistant principal) intended to do it or not, the unintended consequence is still the same — minority students are treated differently and placed in alternative settings,” DuBose said.

The first step to changing those statistics is to confront and have open discussion about the issue, DuBose said.

“We’re looked at (it) as bringing the problem but not the solution,” DuBose said. “We’re not only bringing the problem, we want to sit down at the table to bring the solution.”

DuBose believes school administrators could have addressed this situation differently.

“Here’s a student that should still be in the traditional school setting,” DuBose said. “It’s really a good case to make an example of how extreme discipline is for minority students.”

While NAACP leaders feel minority students are being punished excessively, Carpenter said school administrators are simply doing their jobs. While Carpenter acknowledged that minority students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, he said administrators are punishing those students proportionally to their actions as well as considering the student’s prior record.

“When we assign consequences, that’s based on the offense,” Carpenter said.

“In offenses that take place, if non-minority kids are doing the same offenses and we’re not punishing them accordingly, we have a problem. We try to be consistent.”

Instructional implications

Falk said school officials overreacted to the situation by sending the student to alternative school.

“The vast majority of students that are tribunaled and moved from their home school (are) for what’s considered minor disciplinary actions,” she said.

The alternative school setting may be detrimental for the student in this case, since it does not provide the same regulation, performance and accountability measures of traditional schools, Falk said.

“This has been happening for years. The general public does not understand what the alternative education means for the student,” she said.

Between the day of the fight and the March tribunal, the student received in-school suspension, Falk said. After the tribunal, he was out of school more than two weeks until an instructor began meeting with him last week.

The case already has violated stipulations under federal guidelines that address how long special education students can be out of school as a result of their behavior, Falk said.

All special-education students are also required to have an individualized education plan, which sets specific educational goals for the student for the year, addresses testing, progress and other related matters. The student’s plan is created with the help of parents, teachers and other staff.

The student’s mother, Falk and Cheryl Ngoto, a private consultant based out of Atlanta who works with special-education issues, met with school officials Friday at Houston County High to discuss the student’s individualized education plan.

Under federal guidelines, the student is allowed to stay in the confentional school setting facing suspension longer than 10 days until the parent and the school can agree on a new individualized education plan.

In this case, parents and school officials are required to have a manifestation determination meeting, which explores whether the misconduct was related to the student’s disability. If so, the student can remain in the school. School officials determined that was not the case. Ngoto said she challenged that assessment, saying the student’s information on file was outdated and that he would need to be re-evaluated.

After discussing the disciplinary data, school officials ended the meeting, Ngoto said.

Falk said the student had several discipline referrals before the Feb. 9 incident, which include incidents of class tardiness, skipping class and missing teacher detentions. However, Falk said those are minor infractions that may have exacerbated the matter in the eyes of school officials.

“If, as a school, you began to notice behaviors that the discipline history is severe enough to (suspend) him for a year, why not reconvene and talk about an intervention earlier?” she said.

Boykin, as well as the state’s NAACP leaders, said they are talking about the student’s case to others, including Washington politicians and national NAACP representatives, to bring awareness to the broader issues.

The problem is larger than one student, Boykin said.

“He may be a spark for this, but this is not just Georgia, it’s nationwide.”

To contact Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.