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Supreme Court ruling on fights not likely to have significant impact on local schools
Georgia Supreme Court 2017

Officials in the Gainesville and Hall County school systems said a Supreme Court of Georgia ruling last week on a Henry County case involving zero tolerance policies on school fights is not likely to have any significant impact on their schools.

The court unanimously decided “that schools with zero tolerance policies against school fights must nevertheless apply the Georgia statute that gives students the right to argue self-defense as justification for the fight,” according to the court’s summary of the decision. The court also ruled in such cases the student has the burden to prove self-defense.

The summary stated the case was filed on behalf of a high school senior who was expelled for a fight with another girl at Locust Grove High School but claimed self-defense.

Gainesville High School Principal Tom Smith served in Henry County Schools for 20 years, eight of those as a principal at a different high school than the one involved in the court case. He said Tuesday he doesn’t believe the ruling will change how Gainesville administrators handle similar situations.

“I think we’ve always taken a look at that from a case-by-case situation in terms of how an altercation starts, how it continued, did anybody have a chance to walk away,” Smith said. “There are times when there’s nothing a person can do when an altercation happens. There are other times when students have an opportunity to walk away and they choose not to and they still claim self-defense. Well, then that’s not self-defense.”

While the school doesn’t have a zero tolerance policy, Smith said officials may need to make some changes in the language of school policy to more accurately reflect the school’s intent.

“It’s really hard to articulate an end-all, be-all type of a statement,” he said. “It’s something I guess we could articulate a little better in terms of it being a case-by-case, but it would be very hard to articulate what it actually looks like and cover all situations.”

Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams wrote in an email to The Times the ruling “causes us to review our policies and procedures while maintaining the integrity of investigations.”

“Each situation will be investigated and addressed on a case-by-case basis,” Williams wrote in the email. “Ultimately, we expect each environment to be safe for students to learn.”

Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield wrote in an email that he didn’t see the ruling impacting his district.

“I'm not a fan of zero tolerance, so this really doesn't affect Hall,” Schofield wrote in the email. “However, I will forever believe there is a significant difference between defending oneself and retaliating. That is where principals must use their judgment.”

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