Student expelled from Callaway may graduate early after decision reversed
Published 9:00 am Saturday, August 26, 2023
Editor’s note: This article is an updated version of a story that was first published on Aug. 24.
A decision to expel a Callaway High School student accused of throwing a cell phone at a teacher has been overturned by the Georgia State Board of Education. At issue is whether the student had been given due process for the matter.
The expulsion was reversed in a decision on Thursday authored by Leonte Benton, Vice Chair for Appeals for the State Board of Education, according to case documents sent to The LaGrange Daily News by the student’s attorney, Andrew Lampos of Hall & Lampos.
While student discipline is handled privately, this particular case has been referred to publicly by the Troup County NAACP at two press conferences regarding the state of the Troup County School System.
On Feb. 23, ninth-grade student Con’iya Williams at Callaway High became involved in an altercation with another student and attempted to throw the cell phone at him in anger. Williams was identified by her family, not in documents on the case. Williams missed the unidentified student and hit a teacher in the face by accident, injuring her.
According to decision documents provided by Hall & Lampos, the teacher sustained a mild concussion, a black eye and a lump on her temple as a result of the phone hitting her face.
At the time, Williams did not deny hitting the teacher with the phone, but she insisted that it had been an accident and she had intended to hit the other student.
On March 2, the school notified Williams that she was charged with violating TCSS rules against “Physical Violence causing Physical Harm to School Personnel” and “Battery.” A disciplinary hearing was held six days later where the student was charged with the two violations.
In the hearing, Williams was accused of violating another rule, “Rule 13.01 – Physical Violence of an Insulting and Provoking Nature to School Personnel,” alleging that the student committed physical violence causing physical harm to school personnel when she intentionally threw the phone.
At the time, Williams pleaded not guilty to the first charge but pleaded guilty to the second.
The tribunal later found the student not guilty of violating Rule 13.01 but accepted the plea and found the student guilty of violating Rule 1.04 – Battery. The student was then given in-school suspension for ten days and placed on probation for the 2023-24 school year.
On March 10, Callaway High appealed the decision to the school board. A hearing was held on March 15 during which the school board found the student guilty of violating Rule 13.01 and permanently expelled Williams from CHS with the option to receive partial services from the HOPE Academy for the remainder of the school year through the first semester of the following school year, with the potential to continue with good behavior.
Williams challenged the decision, saying she was notified two days after the hearing was conducted on March 17. The school board then scheduled another hearing for April 17 during which the board again found her guilty of violating Rule 13.01 and expelled her.
The student later argued that the wrong rule number was given on the notice of the disciplinary hearing issued by the school on March 2, which identified the first charge against the student as a violation of the policy prohibiting “Physical Violence causing Physical Harm to School Personnel,” which is rule 13.02 rather than 13.01.
At question is whether the student had been notified and found guilty of two separate rules:
13.01 – Physical Violence of an Insulting and Provoking Nature to School Personnel or 13.02 – Physical Violence Causing Physical Harm to School Personnel.
The first rule, 13.01, defines physical violence as intentionally making physical contact in an insulting or provoking nature with the person of a teacher administrator, school employee or bus driver but the second, 13.02, defines physical violence as intentionally making physical contact which causes physical harm to another unless such physical contact or harm were in defense of himself or herself, arguably a lower bar.
At the initial disciplinary hearing, without objection from the school, the tribunal chair stated that the student was charged with violating Rule 13.01 Physical Violence of an Insulting or Provoking Nature to School Personnel. Callaway then appealed the tribunal’s decision to the school board, which determined that the student violated Rule 13.01, which prohibits Physical Violence of an Insulting and Provoking Nature to School Personnel.
“The local board argues that the evidence presented at the disciplinary hearing supports that the evidence presented at the disciplinary hearing supports a determination that the student violated Rule 13.01 – Physical Violence of an Insulting and Provoking Nature to School Personnel. However, the notice of hearing did not charge the student with violating the Local Board’s policy prohibiting Physical Violence of an Insulting and Provoking Nature to School Personnel. The student was put on notice that she was in violation of the local board’s policy prohibiting Physical Violence causing Physical Harm to School Personnel, also known as Rule 13.02,” Benton said in the decision.
TCSS has contended that it does not matter which rule Williams was charged with violating because the evidence at the tribunal hearing supports a determination that she is guilty of violating both Rule 13.01 and Rule 13.02.
“In the interest of due process, it does matter which rule is under appeal before the local board. The tribunal found the student not guilty of violating a rule for which she was not charged. Then, on appeal, the local board reversed the tribunal’s decision and found the student guilty of violating the same rule for which she was never charged. The State Board has previously held that “the accused needs to know the rule or rules allegedly violated” and that “the sufficiency of the notice has to be determined as of the time it is issued, and not upon what evidence is later presented at the hearing,” Benton said.
The notice informed the student that the April 18 hearing would not be a de novo hearing, so the board could not utilize testimony and evidence from the disciplinary hearing to find the student guilty of violating a rule for which she was not charged, the ruling said.
“The state board finds that the local board violated the student’s due process rights by conducting a de novo hearing and finding her guilty of a charge for which she was not given notice,” Benton said in the decision reversing the TCSS decision.
School board attorney Greg Ellington said TCSS will abide by the state’s decision.
“We have been made aware of an unsigned opinion drafted by a hearing for the State Board of Education related to a recent student discipline matter. We have not received actual notice about any action taken by the State Board on the matter. The Troup County Board of Education is committed to protecting the safety of its staff and students and will abide by whatever decision is reached by the State Board on the matter,” Ellington said.
In the documents sent to The LaGrange Daily News, the decision —which indicates that it was authored by Benton — was not signed above his name.
“The Troup County Board of Education has been held accountable for violating this child’s due process rights,” said Andrew Lampros, Partner at Hall & Lampros.
Williams’s mother, Constance Hopson, said she was satisfied with the decision.
“The state did their job, and they basically stated the Troup County School System does not know their own policies. They charged my daughter for something that she wasn’t initially charged for during the tribunal,” Hopson said.
Hopson said she is uncertain when her daughter will go back to school but when she does, it won’t be to Callaway.
Hopson stated she went to the Board of Education on Friday morning and was told Williams was still registered at Hope Academy, and they were unaware of the decision.
Williams has been out of school since Feb. 23 but has kept up by doing virtual work that is self-paced through HOPE Academy.
“[Kenneth] Kennedy from Hope Academy has been very helpful. With Con’iya going to the 10th grade, he said that as she’s taking AP classes, she’s four credits away from being in the 11th grade. So, she’ll actually graduate early,” Hopson said. “Those credits should go toward her work at Troup High School. I’m not sending her back to Callaway.”