Justice Robert Benham
Justice Robert Benham (John Disney/Daily Report)

The Georgia Supreme Court had to watch a video of a fight between two girls in front of a high school to reach a decision Monday that both sides interpreted as a victory.

The bottom line is that, after three-and-a-half years of litigating, the Henry County Board of Education will have to take another look at its decision to expel a student for fighting and consider her claims of self-defense.

The fight happened outside the front door of Locust Grove High School after class in January 2014. The school expelled a student identified only as S.G. for violating the school’s zero tolerance policy against fighting—even though she and two witnesses who worked at the school testified that the other student was the aggressor. The high court also said security video backed her up.

The school board upheld the school, again without consideration of self-defense. The student appealed to the Henry County Superior Court, which reversed the school board for failing to consider the student’s claim of self-defense. The school board appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals and lost.

Justice Robert Benham wrote a unanimous opinion released Monday reversing the Georgia Court of Appeals for improperly shifting the burden of proof for self-defense from the student to the school board. But the high court remanded the case to the school board for further consideration, including the self-defense claim.

“We hold that the Court of Appeals announced an improper burden-shifting evidentiary rule when a local school board is considering a student’s claim of self-defense against a disciplinary charge for fighting,” Benham wrote in a 20-page opinion.

“In accordance with the general rule for the burden of proof in civil cases, when a student raises an affirmative defense in a school disciplinary proceeding, the student bears the burden of proving that defense,” Benham wrote. “Unlike the burden of proof in a criminal case, the burden does not shift to the local board of education to refute the student’s defense.”

Benham ruled the Court of Appeals “veered off course” by “substituting its own findings of fact instead of remanding the case to the local board to apply the proper law to the record evidence and reach its own findings.”

Benham also had something to say about the fight.

“Simply because a student engages in a fight does not establish the student has violated a disciplinary rule prohibiting the ‘physical abuse’ of others, nor does it establish the student has engaged in conduct that constitutes a misdemeanor under Georgia law,” Benham wrote, contradicting the school board’s position. In addition, Benham said it was wrong to presume the fight was the student’s fault just because she threw the first punch—and more—after the other girl lunged at her. S.G. was not “required to have lost the fight in order to claim self-defense,” Benham said.

“This is an extremely important case for school boards across the state of Georgia,” said A.J. “Buddy” Welch Jr. of Smith Welch Webb & White in McDonnough, who represents the Henry County Board of Education. “We felt the Court of Appeals made a mistake when they placed the burden of proof on the school board. … The Supreme Court agreed with our interpretation of the law.”

Michael Talfelski of Georgia Legal Services represents the student. She has since graduated from the county’s alternative school program. But she continues to seek expungement of the disciplinary charge from her academic record.

“We’re very pleased that the Georgia Supreme Court, in the first school discipline case decided by the Court, unanimously affirmed several important legal protections for students involved in disciplinary proceedings,” Tafelski said in an email. “First and foremost, the Court vigorously rejected the Henry County Board’s repeated attempts to make it practically impossible for a student to assert or prevail on a claim of self-defense. Instead, the court held that self-defense is indeed applicable in a school discipline setting and that a student need not use magic words to invoke the defense. The court confirmed that the blind enforcement of zero tolerance fighting policies, which do not consider a student’s right to self-defense and subject victim children to expulsion from school, are unlawful.”

Tafelski also said he is “thrilled to see the strong and repeated recognition of all of the evidence strongly supporting S.G.’s claim of self-defense, including the Supreme Court’s own analysis of the video evidence and the various witnesses’ testimony.”

And he made a pitch for Georgia Legal Services, which provides free legal aid across the state for the low income and the elderly.

“Very few children have access to lawyers when they face long term suspension or expulsion from school and this case demonstrates the need for more lawyers to ensure that the rights of children are protected,” Tafelski said. “For more than three years and at significant taxpayer expense, the Henry County BOE has defended an unlawful policy against a student who graduated in 2014. We hope that the Henry BOE will swiftly move to put this issue to bed by expunging S.G.’s record of this offense so that she can move forward with her life, but stand ready to once again defend S.G.’s rights if they fail to do so.”

The case is Henry County Board of Education v. S.G., No. S16G1700.