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SPLC sues Alabama school board for unfairly blocking two high school seniors from their graduation

Two black Alabama high school seniors were unfairly suspended and barred from their graduation ceremony following an incident involving law enforcement, students and parents, according to two separate complaints the SPLC filed this week.

The complaints, M.B., et al. v. Athens City Board of Education; and G.K., et al. v. Athens City Board of Education, seek to reinstate the Athens High School students and allow them to participate in their graduation ceremony, which takes place tonight.

“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, an attorney for 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, which were filed on Tuesday, argue that the Athens City Board of Education denied the students, G.K. and M.B. – who are both black and 18 years old – of their due process rights, failed to prove that the students violated the school’s student code of conduct, and that the school board abused its discretion by arbitrarily punishing the students and prohibiting them from participating in their graduation.

The complaints were filed in the Juvenile Court of Limestone County, Alabama, and they each seek an emergency hearing and expedited relief before today’s graduation.  

The complaints follow a series of incidents in April at Athens High School in Athens, Alabama. The interim principal entered a classroom of seniors at the high school on April 9 when a handful of the students were joking around, according to the complaints. The interim principal said he was the “new sheriff in town,” and threatened to “have them escorted out in handcuffs” if they did not change their behavior, according to the complaints.

After the interim principal left the room, however, the students in the predominantly white class were confused about what he had said. They began talking and asking questions.

Then, the teacher sent five black seniors to the principal’s office with police escorts, even though their behavior was no different from that of the white students in the classroom, Barbee said.

G.K. – who had no prior disciplinary history – was among the seniors who were sent to the principal’s office. M.B., a friend of G.K.’s, was in the class but was not among the students who were taken to the principal’s office.

The next day, G.K.’s parents met with the principal to discuss what they felt was unfair treatment. At some point, there was an altercation between students, police in the school, and parents. Video surveillance and officer body camera footage shows that law enforcement officers, who lacked specialized training to work in schools or with adolescents, escalated the situation and used excessive force against students.

M.B. was one of about 15 students in the school lobby on April 10 while G.K. and her parents were in the meeting with the principal. In the midst of this situation, the assistant principal asked law enforcement officers to disperse the group in the lobby, and one of the officers asked M.B. to leave the area. When M.B. tried to make a joke, the officer pushed M.B.’s shoulder, and the teenager responded with an obscenity, according to the complaint about his case.

Then, both officers pushed M.B. against a wall, arrested him, and handcuffed him, according to the complaint. One of the officers continued to escalate the situation by asking M.B., “What are you going to do about it?” M.B. was then escorted to the officer’s patrol car.

Meanwhile, G.K. and her mother saw the incident in which the officer pushed M.B. against a wall and placed him in handcuffs. G.K. video-recorded the officers as they escorted M.B. to the patrol car. The officer who escorted M.B. to the patrol car then returned to the school, saw G.K.’s mother and accused her of inciting a riot for chanting, “Black lives matter.”

Then, the officer ordered G.K.’s mother to leave the school. She responded that she was checking G.K. and her two siblings out of school. G.K. and her two siblings came to their mother’s aid, stepping between her and the officer. The officer shoved G.K. and her brother, grabbed G.K.’s arm, and punched G.K.’s sister in the face and neck, knocking her unconscious, according to the complaint. The officer also pushed G.K. and her mother onto the ground, dragged G.K. along the ground, and eventually handcuffed and arrested both G.K. and her mother.

Alabama law defines a school resource officer as a law enforcement officer who is specifically selected and specially trained for the school setting.

“The Athens officers involved had no specialized training to work in a school or interact with students,” said SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Michael Tafelski. “That lack of training was on display as the officers used excessive force against our clients and failed to de-escalate this situation peacefully.”

After the incidents, G.K. and M. B. were immediately and indefinitely suspended from school. Both students were told that they would have to complete their coursework at an alternative school, and that they were barred from Athens High School property, attending prom, and walking at graduation. 

Athens City Schools (ACS) failed to provide the students’ adequate due process, and accused them of violating rules that are vague, unreasonable, and overly broad, according to the complaints. The complaints also state that ACS lacked sufficient evidence to prove that the students violated the code of conduct, and that the board’s decision to punish the students was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion.

The case highlights racial disparities in the way that students are disciplined in Athens and across the South.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for the 2015-16 school year, less than a quarter of the students enrolled in Athens City Schools were black, but black students made up half of the students who received out-of-school suspensions and a little less than half of the students who were expelled. Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined under Athens City Schools’ rules.

“Students of color are disproportionately pushed out of our nation’s schools,” Barbee said. “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. 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.”

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