89 percent of students found guilty at tribunals

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%