Fairness of school discipline in spotlight in Henry County

Anthony Sapp’s efforts to defuse what he said was a dust-up between his younger brother’s friend and another student in January have put him in a legal dispute his supporters say reveals a problem with Henry County’s school disciplinary process.

The punishment he received is an example of what critics say are harsh and inconsistent disciplinary policies, and the county is under scrutiny by Justice Department and federal education officials.

Sapp, 18, was found guilty of disruption of school after he said he pushed a student who pushed him first. He had to attend Henry’s alternative school for the final four months of his senior year, which means Sapp may not be able to graduate with fellow Luella High School students next week.

His mother worries about the future consequences for Sapp, who wants to join the U.S. Army.

“It hurts. This is my oldest,” said Stacey Warren, Sapp’s mother. “I’ve cried so much I can’t cry anymore. This is a pivotal point in a child’s life.”

Critics of Henry’s discipline practices note a racial disparity. Henry’s student population is 52 percent black, but about 65 percent of students disciplined are black, according to data Sapp’s attorney received through the Georgia Open Records Act.

That proportion is similar to the one for all of Georgia, where about two-thirds of disciplinary cases statewide are against black students, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has previously reported. Around 37 percent of Georgia’s students are black, but they receive 57 percent of expulsions and 67 percent of out-of-school suspensions.

Henry officials believe the criticism is unwarranted, citing improvements to the district’s guidelines in recent years and arguing other school districts have greater racial disparities in school discipline. Disciplinary hearings have declined from 919 during the 2011-12 school year to 606 so far this school year, district officials said.

Georgia Legal Services attorneys and others, though, have raised concerns about Henry County to Justice Department officials, who visited in March. District spokesman J.D. Hardin insists the DOJ’s visit had nothing to do with the school system’s disciplinary practices, but declined to say what was discussed.

Emails obtained by the AJC and interviews with attorneys who met with federal officials say they wanted to discuss “school climate” policies, a term often used to describe an effort to reduce disciplinary problems in a school.

Justice Department officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Justice Department investigations of school disciplinary policies often result in districts being ordered to change their rules. At worst, a district could lose federal funding for gross violations.

Additionally, federal Education Department officials have an ongoing investigation of Henry’s school district that began in June for possible racial and disability discrimination. An education department spokesman said he could not discuss the investigation.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat who represents a portion of Henry County and is involved in state-level school policy issues, and others believe some white teachers and administrators have internal biases against non-white students that lead to disciplinary action that could be resolved by other means. Sapp’s attorney, Michael Tafelski of the Georgia Legal Services Program, who’s represented students in other Georgia districts, believes some implicit racial biases are emerging in Henry as the school district’s enrollment transitions to one that is majority black.

“When you’re white in Henry County, you can be a child,” said Tafelski, who is white. “When you’re black, you have to be an adult.”

Jones said, “Henry County has made a lot of changes, but more changes need to be made.”

Records show Henry County has had 17 state appeals of its disciplinary decisions since 2014, more than any Georgia school district. Gwinnett, which has four times as many students as Henry, was second with 13. Only one of Henry’s cases was reversed by the state school board. In nearly every case, the student was sent to an alternative school, aimed at helping wayward students, for several months to finish out the semester or year for infractions that ranged from drinking alcohol at school to fighting to grabbing a female student’s breast.

On Wednesday, Tafelski filed an injunction in Henry County Superior Court to allow Sapp to graduate with Luella classmates May 27.

Another parent, Shirley Shaw, made a similar complaint about the district’s discipline of her son, Z’Andre Shaw, who also was sent to an alternative school but wants to graduate this month with his Dutchtown High classmates. Like Sapp, he was charged with fighting and disruption of school. Like Sapp, Shaw’s mother said the fighting charge was dismissed by Henry officials who upheld the disruption-of-school charge.

Henry officials said they can’t discuss cases unless a student’s parents sign paperwork authorizing the school district to talk. The approval process wasn’t completed before deadline.

Henry County’s student handbook says disruption of school can range from starting a food fight to gesturing in a threatening manner. A first-time offense can result in a 10-day in-school suspension. Sapp’s family said it was his first such offense, and his attorney said Henry officials didn’t explain why they imposed the penalty he got.

Jones and two school board members, Annette Edwards and Donna McBride said they met Thursday with Henry County Sheriff Keith McBrayer to discuss a plan to reduce disciplinary complaints. They said it includes reviewing how school resource officers patrol schools and more discussions with parents about disciplinary guidelines.

Sapp’s mother, meanwhile, has printed glossy fliers inviting relatives to her son’s graduation. The fliers do not include a school name because she was unsure which ceremony her son would be participating in, Luella High or the alternative school.

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