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East Hall High principal says they charged the wrong student in fight, asks DA to drop charges
03152023 FIGHT
A screenshot from a video shows a teacher attempting to stop a fight between two students at East Hall High School on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Previous story: The principal says they charged the wrong student with kicking a teacher in the face during a fight at East Hall High School. 

Jhonny David Mendez, an 18-year-old student at East Hall High School, was recently accused of kicking a teacher in the face during a fight with another student. 

Mendez was charged with felony battery and misdemeanor affray, jailed and later released on a $3,500 bond. 

But Principal Jeff Cooper told The Times it was actually the other student, a juvenile, who kicked teacher Heather Hawkins in the face, and he is now asking prosecutors to drop the charges and allowing Mendez to return to East Hall High rather than sending him to The Foundry, the district’s remedial school for students who get in trouble.

District Attorney Lee Darragh declined to say whether his office will drop the charges. 

“That decision still is pending,” he said over text. “I will confirm that Mr. Cooper, his Assistant Principal, the SRO and the teacher Ms. Hawkins showed up at my office this morning and we met for about an hour.” 

Darragh said felony battery is punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine, and misdemeanor affray is punishable by up to 12 months to serve and up to a $1,000 fine. 

The other student was also charged. His name hasn’t been provided because he’s a juvenile, but he was charged with misdemeanor battery and affray. 

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East Hall High School Principal Jeff Cooper speaks during the school's commencement at Free Chapel Worship Center in Gainesville on Friday, May 24, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

The original version of events given by Hall County school officials went like this: Mendez and another student got into a fight over a girl, Mendez ended up on his back and accidentally struck Hawkins in the face while trying to kick the other student off him. 

Cooper now says it was the other student who kicked Hawkins and who threw the first strike. 

“David was punched first,” he said of Mendez. 

When asked why they charged the wrong student, Cooper said they got inaccurate information from student witnesses. 

“The battery (charge) was decided upon by the school from the evidence that we felt like we had with the statements and so forth,” he said.

He said they realized they made a mistake after The Times published a story with a video of the fight. 

“That’s the evidence we had,” he said. “That’s kind of what you go on. We didn’t have video at the time.”

But before publishing the previous article, The Times sent a video of the fight to district spokesman Stan Lewis asking him to identify who is who. 

“Based on the school’s investigation, it was Mendez who kicked the teacher in the face,” he responded over text at the time. 

Mendez’s mother Mireyna said in a previous statement that her son was wrongfully charged. “David simply isn't the person they say kicked the teacher,” she said. 

Through a family friend, Mendez and his mother declined to comment for this story, as did Mendez’s defense attorney, Hall County Public Defender Brian Dille, when reached over email. 

When asked if he feels like he owes Mendez an apology for wrongfully charging him, Cooper said, “No, I’m not going to go as far as (saying we owe) an apology. I do think we owe an explanation, because we have to make decisions like that with the information we have at the time. … We don’t take those decisions lightly because it’s serious stuff.”

“You know, you get in situations like this, and things do happen,” he said. “So I mean, he did get into a fight at school. We had evidence that we had, but we feel like, in our initial responses, we felt like it was on target.” 

After a fight last September, Cooper told students that anyone who gets in a fight will be charged. But he noted that in this case, while he did decide to pursue a battery charge, it was the Sheriff’s Office that decided to charge him with a felony. 

“Once we refer it we don't have control over what law enforcement chooses to charge him with,” he said. 

Lewis echoed Cooper’s defense in an emailed statement to The Times. 

“This incident was the result of two students who ultimately made a poor decision, and there are consequences for such behavior. We must do everything in our power to teach students that violence is not an appropriate means to solving problems,” Lewis wrote. 

“In disciplinary situations such as these, schools must make the best decision possible with the evidence at hand. If new evidence comes to light that reveals a different consequence is appropriate and necessary, we fully support schools adjusting disciplinary measures. It’s important to get it right, while at the same time holding students accountable so that they avoid making poor decisions in the future.”