89 percent of students found guilty at tribunals

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On a Monday in October, the aunt of a Richmond County student received a letter stating that she and her nephew needed to show up four days later to the school board's office prepared to defend him against allegations he threatened a teacher.

The 15-year-old was accused of making the threat a week earlier. That Friday would be his aunt's first opportunity to question witnesses, although school police officers already had a week to do that by the time she received the letter.

Two teachers claimed the student made a threatening remark. The student said the comment was harmless slang.

His fate would come down to the opinions of three educators.

The outcome? He was expelled for the remainder of the school year, losing credit for all of his classes.

It's a typical scene with predictable results: a relative of a Richmond County student unsuccessfully defending charges levied by a teacher.

Richmond County students accused of trouble are almost always found guilty through these secretly convened tribunals, according to a three-year investigation by The Augusta Chronicle of more than 5,000 records spanning six school years.

"Regardless of what you present, you're probably going to lose," said veteran criminal defense attorney Charles Lyons, who has represented students in about 50 tribunals. "I always tell parents you're probably going to lose because it's not fair."

In 2008-09, 88.7 percent of the students brought before a tribunal were found guilty, The Chronicle's analysis found. Students were rarely represented by an attorney and a quarter of the time weren't even present to offer a defense of their own.

Students were found guilty more than 90 percent of the time in each of the five school years before that also, The Chronicle found.

Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden said if the newspaper's analysis is correct, it might be time to review the tribunal process.

"My thing is, if it stinks, call it a skunk and clean it up," Dr. Bedden said.

The outcome of these tribunals isn't unique to Richmond County.

The Chronicle's findings are consistent with Randee J. Waldman's experiences elsewhere in Georgia. She is the director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic in the Emory University School of Law. Ms. Waldman said students are overwhelmingly found guilty in tribunals.

"I don't think it's designed to railroad kids, but I think the lack of procedures sometimes leads to this result," she said. "I would be shocked if in every one of those guilty cases, the kid actually did it."

No shows

The Chronicle's analysis found that in 23.9 percent of the 2008-09 cases, students didn't show up for the hearings. When students don't appear, tribunals found them guilty 93.7 percent of the time.

In one instance, a seventh-grader at the alternative school was kicked out for the remainder of her school career based strictly on the testimony of two teachers, one of whom said she was attacked by the 14-year-old. Tribunals weigh a student's discipline record in rendering punishment. In this case, the student had no discipline referrals, but no one was at the hearing to advocate on the student's behalf.

She was one of seven students permanently expelled in 2008-09. None of them appeared at tribunal to offer their sides, and no one else represented them.

The families either chose not to attend or were never informed of the hearings because the school system records frequently list wrong addresses.

Dr. Bedden acknowledged that notifying parents can sometimes be a problem.

"We get our fair share of returned mail. We do. Absolutely," the superintendent said. "We're not high on the list when people move."

Adding to the problem, when parents receive notification of a tribunal, the wording confuses them, he said.

"In some cases, they got it, but they didn't know what to do," Dr. Bedden said.

Perhaps a parent advocate or some sort of ombudsman is needed, he said, adding that it's a continuing concern but that he is criticized any time a central office position is added.

Parents in Georgia are largely uninformed and a better job should be done of informing them of students' rights, Ms. Waldman said.

"(Letters) are written in a way that makes it challenging for me as a lawyer to understand," she said.

Unlike lawyers, parents aren't trained to challenge evidence or are versed in procedure, Ms. Waldman said. Oftentimes, evidence is weak and lawyers are successful with cases that come down to the testimony of just a teacher or a classmate.

"(Tribunals are) fairly intimidating, and I'll say that as a lawyer who's appeared in many courts," she said.

Dr. Bedden said Richmond County needs to also improve its internal communications.

By law, there must be a 10-day turnaround, he said. Internal delays have caused some parents to get notified a day before a tribunal hearing. Other delays have caused him to dismiss the charges against the student.

Although students are generally found guilty, Ms. Waldman said the exception to that is when they are represented by a lawyer.

In some of those cases, students would have undoubtedly been found guilty if not for legal representation, she said.

But students had lawyers in only 15 of 795 hearings last year, less than 2 percent, according to The Chronicle's analysis.

"It's overwhelmingly the case that an attorney is better suited to represent a person," said Pete Theodocian, another local veteran criminal defense attorney. "That's what attorneys do."

A school police officer generally prosecutes the case on behalf of the school system, and a school board attorney advises the tribunal.

That changes, however, if the student is represented by an attorney. In these cases, tribunal guidelines allow the school board attorney to prosecute the case.

Matter of fairness

Local defense attorneys call the tribunal process unfair.

But "fair" is a subjective term, Dr. Bedden said.

"Fairness is always in the eye of the beholder," he said. "I'm not saying it is or it isn't."

For instance, Dr. Bedden said he has received complaints from teachers who disagree with tribunal decisions, calling it unfair that students are allowed to return to their classrooms rather than receiving a more severe punishment.

The high conviction rate could be a reflection of a good screening process that only sends guilty students to tribunal, the superintendent said.

"I think it's common knowledge that in school tribunal hearings students are almost always on the losing end," Mr. Theodocian said.

The school system employs a rotating panel of three educators to hear the hundreds of disciplinary hearings each school year. School board policy requires the tribunal members be former or current school employees.

"As they say, the fox is guarding the henhouse," Mr. Lyons said, adding that there's no doubt the cards are stacked against the students. "It's like having a jury trial and having everyone come from within the sheriff's office."

Rather than innocent until proven guilty, Mr. Lyons believes students are treated as if guilty from the outset.

If students served on tribunal panels, results would be different, he said.

The hearings, held in a back room of the school board's central offices, are formal proceedings resembling a trial. Participants are sworn in, evidence is presented and the tribunal issues a sentence, including punishments as severe as expelling a student permanently.

Georgia law allows school systems to use either a single hearing officer or a tribunal, a panel of hearing officers. Dr. Bedden said the thought behind using a tribunal is that hearings are fairer by placing decisions in the hands of three people rather than one.

And using educators to serve on these panels gives the tribunal insight and expertise on education and education rules, he said.

Time for change?

Tribunals have a lower legal threshold than juvenile or adult court proceedings, Ms. Waldman said. Courts haven't ruled on the issue, but generally the standard is a "preponderance of the evidence."

"We might need to rethink that," she said. "I don't think you need to scrap tribunals all together."

Much can be done to improve the tribunal process, including focusing on solutions, rather than guilt or innocence; creating an open exchange of documents; making them more user-friendly; and making charge letters easier to understand, Ms. Waldman said.

Tribunals usually result in suspensions, and those suspensions have significant long-term effects, she said.

"I think we underestimate what it does to a kid when he is suspended," Ms. Waldman said. "The consequences are devastating."

The first out-of-school suspension can trigger a downward spiral, she said. It's a strong indicator of whether a student drops out of school and gets into the juvenile justice system.

"You're setting that kid up for failure" by putting a student out of school for suspension because it's nearly impossible to catch up, she said.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

TRIBUNAL REPORT FINDINGS

A look at data collected from an Augusta Chronicle analysis of Richmond County school tribunal reports:

LITTLE OR NO REPRESENTATION

Represented by a family member 75.5%

Represented by an attorney 1.9%

Represented by no one 23.9%

GUILTY RATES

2003-04 -- 91.4%

2004-05 -- 90.1%

2005-06 -- 91.5%

2006-07 -- 90.9%

2007-08 -- 90.4%

2008-09 -- 88.7%

Comments (45) Add comment
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not a sheep
0
Points
not a sheep 07/26/09 - 01:02 am
0
0
That headline is very

That headline is very misleading. Should be worded "89 percent of students at tribunals found guilty."

laprince
0
Points
laprince 07/26/09 - 01:25 am
0
0
I COPIED AND PASTED SOME OF

I COPIED AND PASTED SOME OF THIS ARTICLE TO SAY I AGREE WITH THESE TWO STATEMENTS. PARENTS THIS IS JUST WHAT'S HAPPENNING TO YOUR CHILDREN THAT GO TO TRIBUNAL. I'VE BEEN THERE AND WITNESSED IT. "As they say, the fox is guarding the henhouse," Mr. Lyons said, adding that there's no doubt the cards are stacked against the students. "It's like having a jury trial and having everyone come from within the sheriff's office."

Rather than innocent until proven guilty, Mr. Lyons believes students are treated as if guilty from the outset.

If students served on tribunal panels, results would be different, he said.

Tribunals usually result in suspensions, and those suspensions have significant long-term effects, she said.

"I think we underestimate what it does to a kid when he is suspended," Ms. Waldman said. "The consequences are devastating."

The first out-of-school suspension can trigger a downward spiral, she said. It's a strong indicator of whether a student drops out of school and gets into the juvenile justice system.

"You're setting that kid up for failure" by putting a student out of school for suspension because it's nearly impossible to catch up, she said.

Asitisinaug
3
Points
Asitisinaug 07/26/09 - 01:28 am
0
0
If the poor little darling

If the poor little darling makes it to a tribunal it is because of excessive bad behavior or a major school incident. Most are for students above age 16 and they are very fair - it isn't a court of law and lawyers aren't needed but of course thats how they make their money. Educators do not look for ways to kick kids out of school, they do that to theirselves. How does a parent not know of a tribunal for a week when the student is suspended pending the tribunal and the parent is notified at once? Basically, you have a lot of non-caring parents and when over 20% of the students don't even show up it means they know they are guilty and/or could care less....

laprince
0
Points
laprince 07/26/09 - 01:37 am
0
0
some and i say again some,

some and i say again some, not all, educators, are right just because they have a degree. some of them could care less about your children. some are only there for a paycheck. the tribunal court is allll about guilty!!! i don't care what you tell them. you can bring proof and appeal the decisions and you are still guilty and they love to suspend the child. if god don't help you you can forget it.

justus4
111
Points
justus4 07/26/09 - 01:56 am
0
0
The data must provide the
Unpublished

The data must provide the racial numbers because young African-American men are probably the majority victims, with the teacher being a non-minority. That fact is avoided but central to the real issue. If U want to tell a story, tell the whole story. And again, what is this obsession with the RC school system?

Craig Spinks
817
Points
Craig Spinks 07/26/09 - 02:14 am
0
0
Were Richmond County

Were Richmond County schooltax-payers to follow the advice of "Deep Throat" and follow the money, the essential question facing them would be: How much was the Fletcher firm paid during FY2009 to advise and prosecute tribunal cases for the RCSS?

ONLY THE TRUTH
2
Points
ONLY THE TRUTH 07/26/09 - 02:42 am
0
0
justus4 What IS the real

justus4 What IS the real issue?? That AA boys get in more trouble(not Victims as you suggest), or that the majority of teachers are whites?? Either way-----DUH

KSL
140232
Points
KSL 07/26/09 - 04:58 am
0
0
Why do you call them

Why do you call them "victims" justus? Do you really think they should be given a pass just because they are AA?

KSL
140232
Points
KSL 07/26/09 - 05:01 am
0
0
"are probably" per justus. I

"are probably" per justus. I say no one should ever respond to one of his posts again. He's just here briefly to stir the pot.

KSL
140232
Points
KSL 07/26/09 - 05:04 am
0
0
Note that justuss has never

Note that justuss has never posted anytime except in the morning.

ldsmith1
1
Points
ldsmith1 07/26/09 - 06:56 am
0
0
It is the parent's

It is the parent's reponsibility to inform the school if there is a change of address or phone number, but many do not bother. If they receive a letter from the school that they do not understand, it would be their responsibility to ask questions. Problem is, responsibility is a foreign concept to many of these parents. That is why the kids wind up at the tribunal in the first place. Have a baby - get a check.

ldsmith1
1
Points
ldsmith1 07/26/09 - 07:04 am
0
0
"The high conviction rate

"The high conviction rate could be a reflection of a good screening process that only sends guilty students to tribunal, the superintendent said." I suspect that there is a lot of truth to this. Students get many "second chances" before it gets this far. laprince, perhaps you should have addressed the problem earlier.

writer
274
Points
writer 07/26/09 - 07:19 am
0
0
Here is a statement of part

Here is a statement of part of the problem with education today: "Two teachers claimed the student made a threatening remark. The student said the comment was harmless slang." So, the student is given a hearing instead of being dealt with immediately? Why? The article implies that the tribunal decides whether the teachers are right or the student is right. What?
I always understood that Tribunal had to do with the degree of punishment given, not with guilt or innocence, and that a student is not taken to tribunal unless there has been an infraction.

blackambiance79
0
Points
blackambiance79 07/26/09 - 07:25 am
0
0
This goes back to the lack of

This goes back to the lack of parental involvement in the school system. It is a fact that many of the students' contact information are incorrect as far as address and phone number. A good number parents don't even show up to the school or check up on their child unless it's a sporting event or if disciplinary action has taken place. This also goes back to the lack of teachers informing parents of the students' behavior before it has to go to tribunal. A lot of times tribunbal could have been avoided if the problem was nipped in the bud instead of hoping it will go away on its own.

DonH
13
Points
DonH 07/26/09 - 07:27 am
0
0
This article leaves us with a

This article leaves us with a lot of questions. What are the number of kids affected by these tribunals? We have the % of convictions, but what are the ratios of convicted students to the entire student body? There just is not enough information in this article to draw a valid conclusion. It could very well be more manifestation of the age old social/economic problem. Troubled kids from troubled homes are creating more troubled kids from troubled homes. Just how bad is the problem, beyond "fairness" of the system?

Kramer
22
Points
Kramer 07/26/09 - 07:30 am
0
0
Too many parents back their

Too many parents back their children even when they are dead bang wrong. When the teachers are wrong, they get into real trouble with their principals and the administration. Soon, the bad teachers are rooted out and are not allowed to make referrals for severe dicipline. But, when it comes to physical and verbal threats, all things done by children should be taken seriously. it is always better to make a mistake on the side of safety in the school setting. The tribunals I have witnessed have been fair and impartial. And the tribunal appeals are always fair and impartial.

Kramer
22
Points
Kramer 07/26/09 - 07:33 am
0
0
And, for the 53% of you in

And, for the 53% of you in the world who are federal income tax payers, and the 80% who are property tax payers, know this: the tribunal system is very, very costly to do. It really cost millions in educator's time, legal fees, time missed from schools, and other related costs. The really bad ones should be banned for life and sent on their way.

pattym35
4
Points
pattym35 07/26/09 - 07:55 am
0
0
The tribunals are a joke and

The tribunals are a joke and should be an embarrassment to Richmond County Board of Education! My son was required to testify at one. There is nothing professional or even remotely fair and impartial about them! Yes some parents do defend their children by lying and cheating for them. The tribunal does the same thing for the teachers and administrators. The board members don't pay attention to what is being said, they whisper and giggle amongst themselves during the procedure and then render a preconceived judgement of guilty or innocence based on the popularity of the student, value to sports activities or one's prior behavior issues.

teacher02
3
Points
teacher02 07/26/09 - 07:58 am
0
0
""You're setting that kid up

""You're setting that kid up for failure" by putting a student out of school for suspension because it's nearly impossible to catch up, she said". This line indicates a big problem with education today. Notice, someone else is blamed for setting the kid up for failure, not the poor actions of the student. Unfortunately, many administrators adhere to this philosophy and are reluctant to suspend even the most deserving students. The result is that the classroom is cluttered with students who only serve to disrupt the education of the majority that want to learn. As far as the tribunal issue, while most students are found guilty at tribunal, it takes an "act of congress" to get a student sent there. Only the most severe issues (death threats, assaults, etc...) or ridiculous accumulation of smaller issues land a student in tribunal in the first place. Based on this, I'm a little surprised that the guilty rate was only 89%.

butterflygina
159
Points
butterflygina 07/26/09 - 08:12 am
0
0
The tribunal process needs to

The tribunal process needs to be re-evaluated and I hope that the school board looks into doing that. In the case of the student mentioned in the article, I hope the aunt is capable of home schooling, putting him in private school or letting him take classes on-line with an accredited school, just so the time he has put in this year isn't lost. I think parents and recently graduated students should be allowed on the panel. I do know that they take into consideration the principal's recommendation and look at the student's grades and previous disclipinary records. I would like to know what ever happened to the student who had the rx drugs and one student' mom was a teacher. A boy can start a fight and a girl can whoop his behind bad and she is the one expelled even though she was defending herself and had a few tardies to class and a good report card. Teachers, parents, students and administrators all need to build good rapport with each other and have mutual respoect for each other to limit these teacher vs student incidents.

melzbelz
0
Points
melzbelz 07/26/09 - 08:38 am
0
0
"In one instance, a

"In one instance, a seventh-grader at the alternative school was kicked out for the remainder of her school career based strictly on the testimony of two teachers, one of whom said she was attacked by the 14-year-old. Tribunals weigh a student's discipline record in rendering punishment. In this case, the student had no discipline referrals, but no one was at the hearing to advocate on the student's behalf." ----- If the young "lady" in question didn't have any discipline referrals, then how did she land at the alternative school? Is she zoned for the alternative school?? I think not!

55 F-100
1
Points
55 F-100 07/26/09 - 08:47 am
0
0
The students are given the

The students are given the opportunity to attend a tribunal because the students have committed an act worthy of convening the tribunal. If students brings their street thug behavior to school and threaten teachers, students, or school employees, then the thugs should be expelled, so that they can prepare for their future...collecting their Post Office $ or becoming a participant in the State or Federal Penal system.

Dixieman
16580
Points
Dixieman 07/26/09 - 09:07 am
0
0
This whole article and most

This whole article and most of the comments are way off base. Perhaps the teachers are careful and highly selective in deciding which cases to bring to the tribunal so that only the very strongest cases are filed, thus leading to a high conviction rate. Second, the figures for the cases where the student defendants don't even bother to show up and are found guilty by default need to be factored out of the statistics. Real question: Are they guilty?

humbleopinion
0
Points
humbleopinion 07/26/09 - 09:42 am
0
0
I've been to a tribunal after

I've been to a tribunal after my step-son was assaulted by another student when he was 13 at Tutt Middle School. He was attacked while sitting at his desk by a black student with NO provocation. There were 6 students, ALL BLACK, who testified that he was minding his own business when attacked. The attacker was suspended for "the remainder of the school year", but guess what? He was back in school about six weeks later. That lasted about two weeks before he was again suspended for attacking another WHITE student. The board that suspended him at the tribunal was primarily BLACK, so there can be no claims of racial bias. When we confronted the principal at Tutt as to why the student was back, she replied "it was over her head and she could do nothing about it". The whole school board of Richmond County is a JOKE anyway. It has been for years and even under this new overpaid idiot it won't get any better. It will always be poor when there are so many "students" from the households they come from. NO parental guidance, just chips on their shoulders and a feeling of entitlement. Is it any wonder that EVERY HIGH SCHOOL in Richmond county is failing?

disssman
6
Points
disssman 07/26/09 - 10:21 am
0
0
If we had cameras in the

If we had cameras in the classroom, there would be little doubt as to the reason for expulsion. Why are teachers and administrators so afraid of cameras anyway? Is it because it might record ineffiviency along with misconduct? I daresay we could outfit every classroom for very little cost and it would probably result in students probably behaving a little better. On the flip side it would have shown inefficiency of the Jr. High substitute math teacher with headphones in her ears listening to music for weeks on end, and no one took any action. Yes that is what she did, had the kids read their books and she listened to music for weeks.

The Ode
2
Points
The Ode 07/26/09 - 11:33 am
0
0
Hopefully the schools will

Hopefully the schools will teach these children that their actions have consequences for which they are responsible because alot parents haven't learned this and most definitely haven't taught their children this.

redapples
672
Points
redapples 07/26/09 - 11:54 am
0
0
Much of this rhetoric sickens

Much of this rhetoric sickens me! Many of the students sent to tribunal have been CHRONIC discipline problems and have worn out the RTI process! What about the rights of the other law-abiding children that are threatened by them and have their learning interrupted by them?! Who stands up for the rights of those children?! Too many people read a headline, and without firsthand knowledge of the topic, they spew their venomous comments! If you want to discuss race, what about the AA children who are losing out on their right to a free and equal education because of these classroom bozos?!?! Let's talk about those children!

corgimom
36696
Points
corgimom 07/26/09 - 12:26 pm
0
0
If I had come home from

If I had come home from school saying that I had gotten in trouble at school, let alone suspended, my parents would've been up at that school in a heartbeat to tell the teacher that they would deal my misbehavior. They wouldn't wait for a letter. My parents made it clear to me that I was there to learn and that the teacher was not there to put up with any of my nonsense. It speaks volumes that the relatives of these children don't know of any trouble until they get a letter from the school. Why didn't the child tell them? And the teachers only report the worst infractions, they know better than to waste their time with minor stuff- it won't do them any good. What is wrong with teaching children YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR BEHAVIOR??? Since when are children allowed to disrespect a teacher? And yes, children DO threaten teachers, it starts in kindergarten and goes from there.

ironpurps
212
Points
ironpurps 07/26/09 - 12:43 pm
0
0
1) IF a person doesnt show

1) IF a person doesnt show for court, they are given a warrant for ARREST! So a guilty verdict is not that bad. 2) This inane article makes it sound like teacher are the only ones who are witnesses. DUH! Who else disciplines at the school, it's sure not the parents!

AmericanRose
3
Points
AmericanRose 07/26/09 - 12:54 pm
0
0
Corqimom. I agree totally.

Corqimom. I agree totally.

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