Two students at Athens High School, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have filed suit against the Athens school board seeking an emergency court order to allow them to participate in this evening’s graduation ceremony.
The complaints stem from the indefinite suspension of the two seniors after an April 10 altercation at Athens High School involving a parent, school resource officers and several students.
Filed in Limestone County Juvenile Court on Tuesday, the complaints are under seal. According to a statement issued Wednesday by the SPLC, the petitions allege the school board violated the students’ due process rights by failing to prove they violated the Athens City Schools Student Code of Conduct and “by arbitrarily punishing G.K. and M.B. and prohibiting them from participating in their graduation ceremony.”
The graduation ceremony is tonight at 7. Juvenile Judge Doug Patterson recused himself from the case Wednesday because his wife is employed by the school board, according to the SPLC, and the case had not been reassigned late Wednesday.
SPLC attorney Michael Tafelski said the age of majority in Alabama is 19, so the students have been identified only by their initials, G.K. and M.B. Students Gabrielle Kirby and Makalab Boykin, both 18, were arrested by Athens police after the April 10 altercation.
Superintendent Trey Holladay on Wednesday issued a statement disputing the SPLC’s claims.
“Athens City Schools strongly denies the allegations made by the Southern Poverty Law Center and looks forward to responding in court,” he said.
The dispute stems from a series of events beginning April 9 at Athens High School.
On that date, according to a statement issued last month by Athens City Schools, five students were disciplined for disrupting a class at the school and were initially told they would be suspended, which would have implications for prom and graduation events.
“Though most of the students in the predominantly white class had been talking, the teacher sent five black seniors, including G.K., who had no prior disciplinary history, to the principal’s office with police escorts,” according to the SPLC.
Parents of four of the students met with interim principal Rick Carter that afternoon to discuss the punishment and suspension, according to the Athens City Schools statement, and the parents of the other student had a meeting with Carter on April 10.
After the April 10 meeting began, “the mother (Amanda Loggins) was asked to leave the school due to the use of inappropriate language and hostile behavior,” according to the Athens City Schools statement, and the student’s father and Carter continued with the meeting, “resolving the situation.”
Tafelski said G.K. received a 20-day in-school suspension as a result of the April 9 incident. The suspension would have prevented her from attending prom, but it was not clear if it would have prevented her from participating in graduation.
Athens City Schools said Loggins came back into the school through secured doors as someone left the building while the April 10 meeting between Carter and her husband was in progress.
“At that point, she was trespassing,” according to the Athens City Schools statement. “She began inciting violence among the students.”
The statement said Loggins, 39, was stopped by an SRO and as he tried to arrest her, she resisted. Students who saw the arrest tried to disrupt the arrest.
The ensuing altercation involved two SROs, Loggins and several students. Athens police arrested Loggins and three students: Loggins’ daughter, Gabrielle Kirby; Makalab Boykin; and one juvenile. All were charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. A hearing on those misdemeanor charges is scheduled for today.
Police body cam video — played for several reporters but not released to the public — shows about a dozen students surrounding an SRO as he tries to arrest Loggins, and shows a female student shoving the SRO from behind. The officer strikes the girl’s neck with his forearm.
“Video surveillance and officer body camera footage shows law enforcement officers, who lacked specialized training to work in schools or with adolescents, escalated the situation and used excessive force against students,” according to the SPLC statement.
“That lack of training was certainly problematic in what happened on April 10,” Tafelski said.
Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the allegation.
“After the incident, G.K. and M.B. were immediately and indefinitely suspended from school with the possibility of expulsion. They were barred from being on school property, attending prom, and walking at graduation,” according to the SPLC statement.
Tafelski said the disciplinary actions violated the students’ due process rights.
“The way you challenge a school board’s disciplinary decision under Alabama law is you have a right to bring a petition in juvenile court, so we brought individual petitions on behalf of each of the students for the Limestone County Juvenile Court to review those disciplinary decisions,” Tafelski said.
Holladay said the punishment the students received was appropriate.
“The students in question received a full and fair hearing before the school board,” he said in his statement Wednesday. “The board had the opportunity to see and hear all of the evidence, and gave the matter careful consideration before making its unanimous decision.
“The board determined that the students violated the student code of conduct in obvious ways, and it imposed reasonable consequences.”
The SPLC complaint seeks to have the students reinstated and their school records corrected.
According to the SPLC, the disciplinary action taken against the two seniors, both of them black, “highlights the racial disparity facing students in Athens.”
The organization cites U.S. Department of Education data from the 2015-2016 school year showing that 23% of Athens City students were black, but black students accounted for 50% of students receiving out-of-school suspensions and 48% of expulsions.
“In Athens City Schools, the way that students are disciplined, there are racial disparities that are ongoing,” Tafelski said.