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Henry County Board of Education v. S.G.

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 28, 2017


          BENHAM, JUSTICE.

         This case involves the expulsion by the Henry County Board of Education ("Local Board") of then-high school student S.G. as discipline for fighting on school grounds in violation of the student handbook. Specifically, she was charged with physically abusing others (in violation of Section 2, item 4 of the handbook) and with a violation that constitutes a misdemeanor under Georgia law (in violation of Section 2, item 11). Following an evidentiary hearing before a disciplinary hearing officer, S.G. was expelled from Locust Grove High School, and that decision was affirmed by the Local Board.

         The hearing transcript shows that S.G.'s mother was employed at the school S.G. attended and witnessed some of the fight between S.G. and the other student involved. Both S.G. and her mother testified at the hearing. The fight occurred during after-school hours, and S.G. stated that immediately before the fight broke out she was walking back to the building after dropping items off in her mother's car. Testimony established that problems between these two girls had existed for some time, and that S.G. and her mother had reported these problems to administrators and had shown them Facebook posts to illustrate the problem. S.G. testified that as she was walking across the parking lot she heard the other student and another girl calling out to her and laughing. Since rumors had been going around school that day that S.G. and the other student were going to fight, S.G. said to her, "There's no problem." According to S.G., the other student dropped what she was carrying and said, "Let's fight now." S.G. stated that, in response, she walked away from the other student and walked up to a brick column along the covered pathway to the building. Nevertheless, the other student continued yelling at her and coming after her. S.G. stated that the other student pushed her before S.G. swung and hit the other student.

         A school secretary also testified at the hearing and stated that as she was walking out the front door of the school to leave work she saw the other student moving toward S.G. "almost at a run" and talking loudly, saying something like, "'We'll do it now.'" The witness stated that S.G. was standing with her back towards one of the brick columns, and she heard S.G. say something to the effect of "'You'll need to stop this.'" It appeared to the witness that the other student lunged toward S.G., and "the next thing they were on the ground." According to this witness, the other student was definitely the aggressor. S.G.'s mother testified that she witnessed S.G. attempting to get away from the other student, as she had advised her to do, but that the other student "insisted on fighting."

         A surveillance video recording of the fight (that does not contain audio) was played at the hearing, and we have reviewed it. The video appears to corroborate, in many respects, the testimony of S.G., the school secretary, and S.G.'s mother. It shows S.G. held up her hand as if to indicate "stop" as the other student approached her, and it then shows S.G. walked up to the brick column and turned around with her back to it. In the video, the other student appears to lunge at S.G., after which S.G. steps forward and starts hitting the other student, but, because of the quality of the video, it cannot be determined whether the other student pushed or made contact with S.G. before the fight broke out. The two girls ended up on the sidewalk and S.G. struck the other student with her fist several times. Others came forward to break up the fight, but again the other student moved toward S.G., and again S.G. struck the other student, knocking her to the ground where more blows were dealt.

         The hearing officer found S.G. guilty of violating the rules with which she was charged "for being involved in a fight on the school grounds." The hearing officer further found:

The other female moved towards you and you hit the girl and the fight started. You threw her to the ground and began hitting her in the face several times. The fight was [broken] up and the other female walked toward you and [the] fight continued. The other student received a busted lip and blood on her face. And you were charged with a misdemeanor by the [school resource officer].

         Expulsion followed, with the option for S.G. to attend the county's alternative school.[1]

         The student appealed to the State Board of Education, which sustained the decision of the Local Board. She then filed an appeal to the Henry County Superior Court, as permitted by OCGA § 20-2-1160. After considering the evidentiary record, briefs submitted by the parties, and oral argument, the superior court reversed the State Board's decision and ordered the Local Board to remove the disciplinary findings from the student's record and to amend the record to reflect the student's innocence of the disciplinary charges brought against her. That prompted the Local Board's appeal to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the superior court's reversal of the Local Board's ruling. See Henry County Bd. of Ed. v. S.G., 337 Ga.App. 260 (786 S.E.2d 907) (2016).

         S.G. asserts she was not guilty of the disciplinary charges because she acted in self-defense. This Court granted the Local Board's petition for writ of certiorari to examine two issues: whether the Court of Appeals opinion imposes an improper burden of proof upon local school boards with respect to a student's self-defense claim to disciplinary charges for engaging in a fight; and whether, regardless of its burden of proof analysis, the Court of Appeals correctly determined that the Local Board in this case improperly rejected S.G.'s self-defense claim. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings in light of this opinion.

         1. Burden of proof.

         First, we hold that the Court of Appeals announced an improper burden-shifting evidentiary rule when a local school board is considering a student's claim of self-defense against a disciplinary charge for fighting. After properly noting that school disciplinary cases are civil matters, the Court of Appeals nevertheless relied upon criminal law for its conclusion that, once a student presents prima facie evidence to support a justification defense to disciplinary charges, the local school board is required to disprove the defense. Id. at 264-266 (2) (b). It is certainly true in criminal proceedings that, once a defendant presents sufficient evidence to raise a claim of self-defense, the State must disprove that defense beyond a reasonable doubt. See Mosby v. State, 300 Ga. 450, 451 (1) (796 S.E.2d 277) (2017). But a local school board disciplinary proceeding is a civil, and not a criminal, proceeding. Thus, while self-defense may be asserted as a defense to disciplinary charges, that does not change the rule that the burden of proof with respect to an affirmative defense in a civil case is upon the party asserting it. See OCGA § 24-14-1. See also Dixon Dairy Farms, Inc. v. Conagra Feed Co., 239 Ga.App. 233, 234 (519 S.E.2d 729) (1999); Bell v. Smith, 227 Ga.App. 17, 18 (488 S.E.2d 91) (1997) (noting, by comparison, that in a criminal case the State must disprove a justification defense). We reject S.G's argument that the burden of proof rule applied in Dixon and Bell applies only to summary judgment in tort cases. The burden of proof set forth in OCGA § 24-14-1 has been applied, for example, to affirmative defenses asserted in workers' compensation proceedings[2] and to the defense of accord and satisfaction in an action to recover a debt.[3] It also applies to school disciplinary proceedings.

         The Court of Appeals has previously acknowledged that the burden of proof in a school disciplinary proceeding is different from that in a criminal proceeding. See C.P.R. v. Henry County Bd. of Ed., 329 Ga.App. 57, 70 (4) (763 S.E.2d 725) (2014) (holding that a "no bill" to indictment for a criminal charge, or even an acquittal in a criminal trial, would not bar a student disciplinary proceeding for the same conduct because criminal proceedings have a more stringent burden of proof). In accordance with the general rule for the burden of proof in civil cases, when a student raises an affirmative defense in a school disciplinary proceeding, the student bears the burden of proving that defense. Unlike the burden of proof in a criminal case, the burden does not shift to the local board of education to refute the student's defense. Additionally, in accordance with the general rule for the standard of proof in civil cases, the student must establish an affirmative defense, for which she has the burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, and not the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Compare Zwiren v. Thompson, 276 Ga. 498, 499 (578 S.E.2d 862) (2003) (addressing the burden of proof in a civil medical malpractice case).

         The Local Board has acknowledged that disciplinary proceedings are informal in nature and that pleadings and answers to accusations are not typically filed prior to the hearing. Apparently, students frequently are not represented by counsel at such hearings, and S.G. appeared without counsel at the initial hearing in her case. Consequently, unlike a defendant in an action governed by the Civil Practice Act, the accused in a student disciplinary proceeding is not required to raise an affirmative defense in a written response prior to the hearing. Practically speaking, the only avenue available for a student to raise self-defense to a disciplinary charge is to present evidence at the disciplinary hearing. The record demonstrates that self-defense was raised by S.G. at the hearing in this case by her own testimony, and the testimony of other witnesses and at least some of the evidence contained in the video recording supported her claim. No testimony was presented that refuted S.G.'s testimony. Additionally, S.G. expressly raised self-defense in her appeal to the Local Board. Although the Local Board is not required to speculate regarding all possible affirmative defenses that might be available to a student, regardless of whether they are expressly raised, by the same token the use of "magic language" or legal terms, such as a direct reference to "self-defense, " is not required in these informal proceedings. It is apparent from the record in this case that the Local Board was not left to ...

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