DId Harrison High School overreach in its response to a freshman who responded with force after two upperclassmen took his lunch, made fun of him and shot Silly String at his face? 
Photo: Cobb County Schools
Photo: Cobb County Schools

Was Cobb freshman defending himself or committing assault?

When Jorge Santa’s son felt threatened at his Cobb high school, the 15-year-old did what his police officer father taught him — he defended himself.

Now, on top of a school suspension, Jorge Santa-Hernandez is due in Cobb juvenile court to face five criminal charges in a case that’s riled the community and pitted state law against school policy.

Santa maintains his son’s physical rebuke to what he perceived as bullying at Harrison High School ought to be evaluated through the state self-defense law.

As an Atlanta Police Department investigator, Santa is well aware of the law, which states: “A person is justified in threatening or using force against another person when, and to the extent that, he reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself.”

However, Harrison High disagreed with Santa’s contention the school must defer to the self-defense statute. “My job is school code. And in the student code of conduct, Jorge’s action was not justified,” said assistant principal Art O’Neill in a meeting with the boy and his dad.

But Georgia schools cannot ignore state law, as the state Supreme Court reminded them in a 2017 ruling declaring, “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.”

Santa made an audio recording of a May 21 meeting at Harrison High, which included his son, assistant principal O’Neill and the school resource officer. He shared it with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Although tense, the meeting shows both sides generally agreeing on what precipitated the physical altercation between Santa’s son and a senior in a school computer lab on the final day of classes.

Jorge did not know the older teens; his PE class had been reassigned to the lab room, along with a class of upperclassmen. A teacher in the room was occupied with other students.

Student witnesses supported Jorge’s account of what led to the confrontation. “There was very little difference in what I was able to determine from Jorge’s statement versus the other students in the class,” says O’Neill.

However, O’Neill downplays the incident on the recording. He avoids calling it harassment or bullying, saying the seniors were “picking at Jorge.”

Santa regards what befell his son as far more menacing. 

In an interview Friday, Santa pulled out a photo of his son, a slight, curly-haired kid. “My son is barely 100 pounds, the typical skinny kid with glasses,” said Santa. “Picking is one thing. These two seniors go into his bag and steal his food. They start calling him names. One kid made a remark, ‘If we were in Africa, you would be picking up cotton and I would be picking up diamonds.’ My son still tries to deflect this with humor, but then his friend warns him they are walking toward him, and one has his hand behind his back holding something. Then, the senior shoots Silly String at my son’s face. My son jumped up and hit him three times and, when the kid turns around, my son put him in rear headlock and he falls, and my son let go.” (Silly String is a plastic goo that shoots in strands from a pressurized can.)

Because of the pummeling of the senior, Jorge faces two felony charges, aggravated battery and aggravated assault.

O’Neill insists Jorge should not have responded physically, telling Santa, “Jorge had options. He chose not to take those options … Your son had every opportunity to make the teacher aware of the harassing situation. Jorge could have wiped the Silly String off of him and gone to the teacher and said, ‘This needs to stop.’”

That is not accurate, said Mike Tafelski of Georgia Legal Services Program, the prevailing attorney in last year’s state Supreme Court case affirming a student’s right to self-defense.

“The law doesn’t say that. If the child has a reasonable belief that the use of force is necessary to defend himself when that aerosol can is aimed at him, he has a right to stand his ground. The question is what constitutes reasonable belief,” said Tafelski. “Would it be a reasonable belief when someone who’s a high school freshman is being bullied and a senior pulls out a canister from behind his back?”

Cobb County Schools declined to explain its decisions in this case, only providing this comment: “Three students were involved in a verbal and physical altercation at Harrison High School on the last day of the 2017-2018 school year. This matter was thoroughly investigated by Harrison High School administration and Cobb County School District Officers. The two current Harrison students have received appropriate school discipline in accordance with Cobb County School District policy and one has received criminal charges in relation to his role in the physical altercation.”

A hearing in Cobb County juvenile court is expected in the next few weeks. Lawyer Mitch Skandalakis, who is representing Jorge, describes the charges against his client as “an upside-down world. You have a kid in school where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing, who doesn’t have a history of discipline problems, and two kids come up and bully him, make racial slurs and they are somehow the victims.”

Many Cobb parents are becoming aware of the case from the Cobb County Schools Unofficial & Uncensored Community Page on Facebook, which is critical of the school district’s stance. Cobb mother Kathy Scott said she and other parents are alarmed at the severity of charges and the inconsistency of discipline policies.

She said parents worry school police officers are more concerned about protecting the administration than the students. “The schools are becoming sovereign ground. It’s a problem to have schools investigate their own crimes,” she said.

Skandalakis contends Cobb County School District doubled down because Jorge’s dad challenged authority, adding, “This father had the temerity to go in there and ask questions and all of sudden they bring down the wrath of God on this student.”

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...
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