ATLANTA – Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a notice of appeal on behalf of a 14-year-old Gwinnett County, Georgia, student permanently expelled after he was accused of a misdemeanor off-campus last fall. The charges were dismissed but the school system refuses to allow the student to return to school, in violation of his rights.
The SPLC is calling on Georgia’s largest school district, Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS), to end excessive and discriminatory school discipline practices that frequently push students of color out of the classroom.
“The Gwinnett County Board of Education’s decision to permanently expel [the student] from Gwinnett County Public Schools was arbitrary, capricious, contrary to law, and a gross abuse of discretion,” the appeal notice states.
“There is no justifiable reason why this child should not be enrolled in school today,” said SPLC staff attorney Claire Sherburne who is representing the student in his appeal. “Like too many Black and brown students before him, Gwinnett County Public Schools has carelessly put his future in jeopardy. We cannot stand by and watch another young, promising future needlessly cut short by an overly punitive disciplinary system marked by bias and intolerance.”
In May, Sherburne petitioned the Georgia Board of Education on behalf of another Gwinnett student who was expelled and won. But thousands of GCPS students cycle through school disciplinary hearings each year without an advocate or a lawyer, imperiling their ability to achieve a positive outcome.
GCPS employs five full-time and numerous part-time disciplinary hearing officers to conduct thousands of discipline hearings each year. They operate inside a building situated across the street from the county jail. Students who are subjected to this process, disproportionately students of color, often receive harsh and arbitrary discipline, including alternative school placement, suspension and expulsion. The alternative program is housed in the same building as the disciplinary hearings.
Parents and other members of the community have been demanding change for years. Marlyn Tillman is the executive director and co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett SToPP), a parent-driven grassroots organization that partners with the community to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in Gwinnett County.
"Nothing Gwinnett County Public Schools does surprises me anymore,” Tillman said. “When Gwinnett SToPP formed over ten years ago, we requested disaggregated data about school disciplinary practices from the school system and was told it would cost our parent-led group almost $9,000 to access this basic public information. Superintendent Wilbanks told us 'I'm not going to give you the gasoline and matches to go into the community with' after we requested the exorbitant fees be removed. The school system's response is deeply disappointing. As parents and taxpayers, we have a right to know what the data says about our schools without these barriers."
The SPLC submitted an open records request for school discipline and budget data to Gwinnett County Public Schools earlier this year and received an invoice for more than $84,000.
“GCPS’ overreliance on the practice of exclusionary discipline, coupled with a complete lack of transparency about how they are administering this practice is cause for great concern,” Sherburne said.