Southern Poverty Law Center files lawsuit against Athens City Board of Education

The SPLC has filed a lawsuit against the Athens City Board of Education.

Posted: May 22, 2019 10:30 PM
Updated: May 22, 2019 10:45 PM

The Southern Poverty Law Center says it has filed a lawsuit against the Athens City Board of Education seeking the reinstatement of two seniors at Athens High School who were suspended after an incident in April at the school that involved law enforcement, students and parents.

The SPLC claims "Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined under Athens City School’s rules."

The SPLC says it learned on Wednesday that the judge who would normally hear this case recused himself because his wife works for the school board. 

Below is the full statement provided by the SPLC to WAAY 31 on Wednesday:

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has filed complaints against the Athens City Board of Education (Board) in Alabama, seeking reinstatement of two Athens seniors’(G.K. and M.B.) at Athens High School who were suspended after a publicized incident at the school among law enforcement, students, and parents in April.

The complaint claims the Board denied G.K. and M.B. of their due process rights, failed to prove that the students violated the ACS Student Code of Conduct, and abused its discretion by arbitrarily punishing G.K and M.B. and prohibiting them from participating in their graduation ceremony. The complaints were filed in the Juvenile Court of Limestone County, Alabama, and seek an emergency hearing and expedited relief before Thursday’s graduation.

“Graduating from high school is a once-in-a-lifetime event, a hugely significant moment for graduating seniors and the people who have supported them throughout the years,” said Brittany Barbee, attorney with the SPLC. “To deny any student such a momentous experience without an adequate evaluation process, leaving the decision to arbitrary discretion is a violation of the students’ due process rights. We hope the court will immediately reinstate the students and allow them to celebrate their graduation with their friends and family.”

The complaints follow a series of incidents in April at Athens High School. On April 9, a handful of seniors were cutting up in one of their classes and the interim principal came to the classroom and threatened to have the students “escorted out in handcuffs” if they didn’t change their behavior. Though most of the students in the predominantly white class had been talking, the teacher sent five black seniors, including G.K., who had no prior disciplinary history, to the principal’s office with police escorts.

The next day, G.K.’s parents met with the principal to discuss the punishment. An altercation occurred between students, police in the school, and parents. Video surveillance and officer body camera footage shows law enforcement officers, who lacked specialized training to work in schools or with adolescents, escalated the situation and used excessive force against students.

After the incident, G.K. and M. B. were immediately and indefinitely suspended from school with the possibility of expulsion. They were barred from being on school property, attending prom, and walking at graduation.

The complaint contends Athens City Schools (ACS) failed to provide the students’ adequate due process, and accused them of violating rules that are vague, unreasonable, and overbroad. Also, the complaint states that ACS lacked sufficient evidence to prove that the students violated the Code of Conduct, and that the Board’s decision was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion.

“Students of color are disproportionately pushed out of our nation’s schools,” said Barbee. “School discipline cannot be arbitrary, and the policies must be clear and provide students with sufficient notice to conduct their behavior in order to meet those requirements,” said Barbee. “The Athens City School Board failed their own processes and failed the students. We seek immediate reinstatement of the students, so they can finish their high school experience.”

M.B. and G.K. are black and this case highlights the racial disparity facing students in Athens. According to data from the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for the 2015-16 school year, 23% of those students enrolled in Athens City Schools’ were black, but black students made up 50% of those students receiving out of school suspensions and 48% of those students expelled. Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined under Athens City School’s rules.

The lawsuit is asking G.K. and M.B. to be immediately reinstated at AHS, be allowed to participate in any remaining classes and school events, that the students’ records be corrected, and they be permitted to participate in the graduation ceremony on May 23, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. The case is M.B. and G.K. v. Athens City Schools Board of Education.

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