Disrupting a Public School in Georgia
If your child has been charged in a Georgia Juvenile Court with Disrupting a Public School under O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181, you should call a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney immediately. In Georgia, cases in juvenile courts are required by statute to be resolved very quickly.
In its current iteration, the Disruption of a Public School statute reads:
“It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly disrupt or interfere with the operation of any public school, public school bus, or public school bus stop as designated by local boards of education. Except as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, a person convicted of violating this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.” O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181.
The statute does require that the school system take certain actions before requesting that a child is charged under this law, however.
Under O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181, school boards must “develop a system of progressive discipline that may be imposed on a child accused of violating this Code section before initiating a complaint.” If the legal custodian appears unable or unwilling to assist in resolving the child's behavioral problem, the school may then request that a case moves forward in a Georgia Juvenile Court by initiating a complaint.
Complaints alleging that a child violated the statute must detail the school's attempts to:
- Resolve the problem through available educational approaches, and
- Engage the child's legal custodian (such as a parent or guardian) to help resolve the problem.
Students eligible or suspected to be eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have an elevated level of protection from prosecution under O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181. Before a special needs child can be prosecuted under the statute, the school board must show that it has:
- Determined that the child is eligible or suspected to be eligible for services under one of these Acts,
- Reviewed the child's current Individualized Education Program (IEP) and placement and has made modifications where appropriate,
- Attempted to resolve the problem through available educational approaches, and
- Engaged the child's legal custodian (such as a parent or guardian) to help resolve the problem, and the parent has been unable or unwilling to intervene to address the problem, and that court intervention is necessary.
It is important to note that the language requiring the school to engage parents and to develop a system of progressive discipline, as well as the increased protections for special needs students was only added into the statute in 2017. Prior to that modification in the statute, schools regularly requested prosecution of special needs and non-special needs students alike for “disruptive” behaviors without making any attempt to rectify the behavior using the interventions available to them as a school system. Because this provision of the law is so new, some school systems and prosecutors remain unaware of it, and still attempt to prosecute students for behavioral problems that could have been handled without court intervention.
What kinds of behaviors does O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181 actually criminalize? This question is debatable, and several appeals have addressed the issue. In one case, In the Interest of J.D., J.D. (the juvenile defendant) entered a classroom “angry and belligerent,” “threw papers off the desk” and “failed to comply with [a paraprofessional's] instructions.” The other students in the classroom reacted to J.D.'s behavior by laughing at J.D. and becoming disorderly, to the point that the paraprofessional “could not control the classroom.” J.D. ultimately had to be removed from the classroom. The Court of Appeals, in that case, found this case to be straightforward. It held that there was sufficient evidence to believe that J.D. violated the statute, and upheld J.D.'s adjudication. In the Interest of J.D., 288 Ga.App. 839, 655 S.E.2d 702 (2007).
But what if behavior takes places outside of the classroom? In Pitts v. State, Pitts (legally an adult but still a student at a public school) and another student engaged in a fight outside the front entrance of the school prior to the commencement of the school day. The altercation drew a large crowd of spectators, and several school administrators were required to break up the fight. Pitts v. State, 260 Ga.App. 274, 581 S.E.2d 306 (2003). The Court of Appeals found that the evidence was sufficient to affirm the conviction.
While the two appellate cases just mentioned were “sufficiency of the evidence” challenges, wherein a defendant asserts that the trial court actually lacked sufficient evidence to convict him or her under the statute, O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181 has also been challenged as being unconstitutionally vague. In order to be deemed constitutional, a statute must put an individual on notice that certain behavior is illegal; otherwise, a law may be subject to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. A statute that is too vague to adequately inform a person that a particular behavior is illegal is deemed unconstitutionally vague and therefore unenforceable. Thus far, challenges that O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181 is unconstitutionally vague have thus far been unsuccessful. In In re D.H., 663 S.E.2d 139, 283 Ga. 556 (2008), the Georgia Supreme Court held that the phrase "disrupt or interfere with the operation of any public school" included in the statute were “words of ordinary meaning that give fair notice as to the statute's application.” It therefore, upheld the statute and D.H.'s adjudication under it.
This does not mean, however, that the law is settled with regards to O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181. For example, Georgia appellate courts have never had to consider whether the statute is unconstitutionally overbroad, because the issue has not yet been properly preserved at the trial court level and thus subject to appellate review (in order to make a particular argument on appeal, the trial court attorney must raise the issue in the trial court first). Overbreadth can also result in a statute being deemed unconstitutional – essentially, the analysis with regards to overbreadth involves analyzing whether the statute may criminalize speech and behavior protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is easy to see how a broadly-defined O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181 could come into conflict with the First Amendment, potentially affecting its constitutionality.
It is also unclear how Georgia appellate courts would handle a situation where an incident occurs in school, but does not interrupt the school day of uninvolved students. Other states have analyzed this question. For example, in A.M.P. v. State, the Florida Court of Appeals for the Fifth District held that two students fighting in a school bathroom did not disrupt the activities of the school where no classes or other activities were disrupted, even though the assistant principal had to break up the fight and subsequently spent two hours of her time taking statements from students and contacting parents. A.M.P. v. State, 927 So. 2d 97 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2006). The Court reasoned that “a broad interpretation of the statute would turn virtually every infraction of school rules into a criminal act to the extent that the infraction occurred on school grounds, during school hours, and required the attention of school officials.” A.M.P. v. State, 927 So. 2d 97 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2006).
Disrupting a Public School is classified as a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature. This means that, while it is unlikely that your child will be facing time in a juvenile detention facility if he or she is adjudicated under this statute (although this depends on his or her history in juvenile court and whether he or she is already on probation), it can result in court interference with your child's life, probation, counseling, and potential school consequences. Because of the recent changes in the Disrupting a Public School statute, the fact that the law surrounding O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1181 is so unsettled, and the fact that adjudication can result in severe consequences, if your child is charged under this statute, you should call a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney immediately.