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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georgiastoryteller
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georgiastoryteller 07/26/09 - 02:30 pm
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Corgimon, you hit the nail on

Corgimon, you hit the nail on the head. I can tell you that as an adminitrator, all the kids I ever took to tribunals were kids that had previous records, were the most common 10% of the school with discipline problems, and this was the last step in an effort to get the kid AND THEIR PARENT to wake up, smell the coffee and DO something about their child's misbehavior because all else was tried at the school level already. I absolutely LOVE Greg Gelpi's take on everything education--he has NO CLUE. Greg needs to get a life and go teach for a week and he'll shut up then. Why didn't he bother to talk to any of the administrators of the kids who went to tribunal? Oh, he might actually GET THE TRUTH.

workingmom
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workingmom 07/26/09 - 04:20 pm
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redapples, I agree with you

redapples, I agree with you 100%. Unless a person has been a teacher in charge of a group of students for 180 days a year, it is impossible to know all of what happens with some of these students. The ones who eventually make it to the tribunal process already have a long history (most of the time) of discipline issues. Teachers and other students can be kicked, punched, spit upon, cursed and threatened by children as young as kindergarten age with only a few days of suspension as a consequence. Then when they continue to have discipline problems through the years, people are surprised when they finally make it to tribunal and doubt the witnesses who were there to see it happen. No wonder there is so much crime with our young people.

ccogic
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ccogic 07/26/09 - 04:41 pm
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It seems that the experts in

It seems that the experts in matters that pertain to the school are not affiliated with the school. Have they been in a classroom lately? As an Administrator, I have processed students for tribunal and in some cases it is the last resort. Some schools go out of their way to help students before it goes to tribunal...scheduling conferences with parents who may or may not show up. The mission of the school is to provide every child an opportunity to get a quality education. Do we sacrifice the education of 18 students because 3 students choose to disrupt the learning environment? Why would a young man speak threatening slang to a teacher? Just because he thought it was funny do we dismiss it? Violent threats must be taken seriously in schools. Finally, it is the parent's responsibility to inform the school when there has been a change of address. All too often parents do not provide the school with updated information. I have sat in meetings where parents criticized the school for not communicating them. When they are shown the address that we have on file they respond, "We moved from there months ago". My response how do we supposed to know?.

corgimom
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corgimom 07/26/09 - 05:01 pm
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"Teachers and other students

"Teachers and other students can be kicked, punched, spit upon, cursed and threatened by children as young as kindergarten age with only a few days of suspension as a consequence." She is speaking the God's honest truth. How long are people going to make excuses for these extremely disruptive students?

ldsmith1
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ldsmith1 07/26/09 - 05:24 pm
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Exactly, corgi. How long are

Exactly, corgi. How long are we going to worry about the long term results of suspension and expulsion as opposed to the long term results of disruptive and violent behavior in the classroom? There are many intelligent posts here today.

FallingLeaves
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FallingLeaves 07/26/09 - 05:28 pm
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I don't think they should be

I don't think they should be suspended. They should go to more school instead of less and it be a more stringent school. Suspended is what some of them WANT. They don't want to be in school, so the most effective punishment would be MORE school. Unfortunately how would we fund that? And what teachers would want to take on these disruptive kids on the weekend? This is just an idea I would like considered.

tja
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tja 07/26/09 - 05:44 pm
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Perhaps, these students are

Perhaps, these students are found guilty because they are guilty. Having been a teacher in Richmond County, I have personally experienced abuse by a student. If that student had not been found guilty, then I would have quit my job immediately. Teachers or other students should not be forced to endure the constant disrespectful and thuggish behavior that the majority of these students who go to tribunal demonstrate. I am no longer a teacher in Richmond County because I was fed up with being forced to accept disrespectful and rude behavior from children. I think that more students should be found guilty and should have to suffer worse consequences than partying at the alternative school all day long which is what occurs there. So before you decide to eliminate the alternative school to save money, which is what this article seems to be laying the ground for, maybe you need to actually step foot in a classroom and see how these "innocent" students are behaving. I seriously doubt that you would want your children to be around them for five minutes.

WheresTheFire
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WheresTheFire 07/26/09 - 06:49 pm
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tja, I was thinking the same

tja, I was thinking the same thing. As with anything, I'm sure there are a few exceptions, but it looks as though teachers are weeding out their classes so they can teach those that wish to be taught - with suprising accuracy it appears (>89% conviction rate). No child left behind shouldn't mean that everyone else has to wait.

Asitisinaug
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Asitisinaug 07/26/09 - 06:52 pm
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Justus4, please do enlighten

Justus4, please do enlighten us, find out the whole story. Please someone, anyone, figure out why the blacks male students commit more of the crimes on campus and disruptions then all of the other races and sexes combined? As for tribunals, these are not court systems and they exsist to ensure the student is being treated fairly in the punishment. But, of course they will take the side of the teacher, principal, etc. as far as the offense but not necessarily the discipline. Why should bad students be allowed to stay in school when they misbehave and cause disruptions and therefore aren't allowing the ones who are there to learn get an education. One of the best stories around was of black principal Joe Clark, who made it clear...throw the bumbs out, period. If you were at school for any reason other than to get an education and follow the rules as set forth by the teachers, then you would be removed. When it became clear he was not kidding and he was able to get past all of the enabling and bs political correctness, he rid the school of the 5% thugs and gave the other 95% a great chance at success and test scores and graduations rates drastically improved.

Vernonmom
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Vernonmom 07/26/09 - 07:37 pm
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Maybe they need video cameras

Maybe they need video cameras in the classrooms to prove what exactly happened. I'm sure there's been a few students blamed for things that didn't happened but on the most part bad behavior did happen. Parents needs to go sit in on classes and see how their little darlings behave and how other students act, it could be an eye opener. Too many parents are NOT proactive in their children's education.

janiceh76
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janiceh76 07/26/09 - 07:48 pm
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Well if I get what Dr. Bedden

Well if I get what Dr. Bedden is saying regarding if it stinks, call it a skunk and clean it up. You have to clean up the school of trouble makers for the students who are there to learn. I've said this so many times if you take the good out of the school from the beginning of the child's education like prayer, patriotic songs, taking field trips to nearby law enforcement facilities, etc. Stopping the teachers from sitting the kids out in quite time when they disrupt the class. The teachers are educators, not parents or care givers. You are responsible for how your child is brought up to respect his teachers, etc. When did parents stop getting involved in the lives of their children. If you are going to blame someone for that child's disrupting the class and disrespecting his teacher, turn and look in the mirror. Sure the teacher has compassion for their students, but they can't raise them for you. That teacher chose her/his vocation because they loved teaching. The remark that witnesses had already been questioned by school police. Well I guess now you are saying that they teach some students to lie for them?! I'm 63, Mother/Grandmother, what has happened to our schools

inkpup
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inkpup 07/26/09 - 08:33 pm
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Haven't read all the posts

Haven't read all the posts but I'll bet dollars to donuts that there's been multiple "disparate impact" statements posted already.

TellTheLordThankYou
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TellTheLordThankYou 07/26/09 - 09:27 pm
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Principals refer students to

Principals refer students to tribunals. Many times the act is of an aggrevated nature or violates a rule or policy that warrants suspension (in or out of school) until the tribunal takes place. Parents are usually called to inform them of this occurance at the school. While suspended, the principal's incident report, the discipline referral, witness statements, and other evidence is presented to a screening committe at the RCSS to verify the need for the tribunal to convene. Many times, the incident that nets the tribunal referal is one of a long list of rule infractions by a particular student. The tribunal panel has no knowledge of other infractions, only this one. If found guilty, the student's academic, discipline, and attendance records are then seen. BOTTOM LINE- All kinds of disruptions occur in scools to include criminal activity: drug dealing, weapons possession, gang wars, assaults, threats, harrasment, sex acts, etc, Some incidents require someone removed from the situation to adjudicate guilt or innocence. Tribunal panel members are presented with evidence and make a decision. Hat's off to these folk that try to make the best of what is often a bad situation

augustagirl222
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augustagirl222 07/28/09 - 09:39 am
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Wow. This article makes me

Wow. This article makes me hate the GA Public School System. I know first hand how unfair it can be, because the school board made lots of decisions concerning my little sister’s education behind closed doors. My mom was definitely uninformed of my sister’s rights to special/inclusive education and the letters/forms she had/has to fill out are very confusing. I sat in on IEP meetings where the school officials acted super elitist and not willing to do anything extra or anything that required effort to help my sister. This article brought back bad memories, but I am glad that the word of how unfair the school system is is getting out there!

corgimom
34237
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corgimom 07/28/09 - 09:05 pm
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Augustagirl, here's the deal.

Augustagirl, here's the deal. I'm speaking as the parent of a child that had an IEP, by the way. A classroom is a classroom is a classroom. You can write all the IEP's in the world, but under the concept of mainstreaming, these children- who desperately need special help and extra attention- get shoved into classes where they just can't handle it. Mainstreamed kids, by definition, are in "normal" classrooms. You can't have it both ways. Either your child is going to be treated like a normal child- which means nothing special, they are one of the gang-, or pull them out and put them in special ed. There's only one teacher and a bunch of other kids and they all need time and attention. There are a whole lot of parents out there that are in denial and want to think that being in a normal classroom will "normalize" their child, and it just doesn't work that way. IEP's are pretty much ignored. "Mainstreaming" just does not work and never has, and neither do IEP's. I feel sorry for IEP kids, most of them have very tough times because they can't cope with a mainstreamed program, and the parents are given unrealistic expectations.

donnaZem
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donnaZem 09/02/09 - 05:44 pm
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I think that most of the

I think that most of the respondents here seem to miss the point. A tribunal is set up to determine guilt or innocence. Students expect that they are innocent until proven guilty. This not the case. In the tribunal system the assumption is guilt, and it is the student that must try to prove his innocence. This is no more fair in a school tribunal than it would be in a criminal case. I speak from experience. My son who had never been in any trouble was accused by a student of indecent exposure in class. My son said that he did not do it. We asked the school to question other students in class; they refused. They said they only needed one witness. We had 15 subpoenas issued, which the administration said that they would serve for us. At this point we still believed that the school was interested in the truth. In retrospect, I'm not sure why we trusted them. The administrator told each student and the student's parents that the subpoena was not a real subpoena, so they did not have to come. The administrator even laughed telling one parent that we had gotten lawyer. It would not matter how many witnesses we had. A FAIR hearing - I think not.

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