Zimmerman: Punishment out of ‘Spite’
Jake Zimmerman will not get to walk at East Paulding High’s graduation ceremony after action taken by the Paulding County School Board at its Tuesday night meeting.
Paulding County School Board members at their meeting Tuesday voted to uphold a student’s long-term suspension—and then some.
Jake Zimmerman, one of 24 teens arrested following the March 11 vandalism of East Paulding High School and surrounding areas, will now also be barred from extracurricular activities, including graduation, following the school board’s 6-1 vote to uphold the decision of the disciplinary tribunal and add the additional stipulations to the original punishment levied by the district. Board member Nick Chester made the motion to uphold the punishment with the new stipulations, with Chairman Michael Skelton providing the second. Theresa Lyons provided the only dissenting vote against the decision.
The vote followed a closed session that lasted nearly four hours.
“It just really hit me hard. It was the last thing I expected to happen—the most I expected to happen would be for it to just remain the same, but nowhere in my mind did I think they would make the punishment worse just because I decided to stick up for myself,” Zimmerman said just minutes after the board’s decision. “I just think it’s completely wrong.
“I think just because I wanted to stick up for what I believed in, I feel like they just kind of wanted to spite me for that.”
Zimmerman’s original punishment, which he says was also levied against others involved in vandalism of the school and nearby roadway, included 10 days of out-of-school suspension followed by long-term suspension for the rest of the year, the latter of which is carried out by the Ombudsman program. But that punishment package would still allow those involved to graduate from East Paulding and participate at graduation ceremonies.
But based on the board’s decision Tuesday, Zimmerman likely will not get to walk across the stage during commencement exercises.
“I think [the board’s decision] is just a mean and spiteful thing to do,” said Attorney Lester Tate of Akin & Tate in Cartersville, who is representing Zimmerman. “What you have here is a kid who has worked very, very hard to be valedictorian, class president, STAR Student, and simply because he stood up for himself, then the board wants to act out of spite. There’s no way to characterize it other than just pure meanness to a kid who has done absolutely nothing to deserve it.
“I’m very disappointed in the board tonight. They simply want to try to punish him for exercising his constitutional rights and his freedom of speech.”
No official word on the punishments of those involved in the vandalism have been released by school district officials, who said that privacy laws prevent the district from revealing how many students were punished, what punishments they received or whether students’ punishments differed.
If Zimmerman remains barred from participating in commencement exercises, that could mean East Paulding’s valedictorian won’t be present at graduation.
“As of now, I’m still valedictorian as long as I keep up my grade point average, but granted, that’s going to be very hard considering I’m at the alternative school,” Zimmerman said. “It’s going to be hard without instruction, but I’m going to try my best to remain valedictorian.
“It’s kind of like my last act to show them they can’t change me regardless of what they throw at me.”
‘A Senior Legacy’
Neither Zimmerman nor Tate deny Zimmerman’s involvement in the vandalism, but say it was limited to spray-painting the intersection in front of the school—a long-time tradition for the school’s senior classes, they say.
“It’s been going on for at least the past 10 years. It’s always just been a senior legacy—for lack of a better phrase, ‘leaving our mark’ on the school,” Zimmerman said. “As long as I can remember, it’s just always been something the seniors did to show their senior pride. So being the class president, I wanted to participate in this and kind of show my school spirit—I never knew it would result in this.
“Nobody has ever been punished, and they claim that’s because no one has ever been caught, but there have been instances where people have initialed their graffiti, but there was no investigation that resulted from that,” Zimmerman added.
“Jake didn’t do anything to the school—that was one of the things that a lot people were upset about, that there was vandalism on school property,” Tate said. “Jake painted on a roadway—not that that’s a good thing, but certainly didn’t vandalize the school building or anything on school property.”
The total aftermath of the March 11 vandalism saw school buildings spray-painted to include windows; some perpetrators also made it onto the school’s roof, which was also painted. Some of the paintings across the campus, in addition to “Senior” and “2012,” also included the text “YOLO” and “Musgrove is a [expletive]”—the latter message seemingly targeting Assistant Principal Greg Musgrove. In all, school district officials said clean-up of the damage to East Paulding High was estimated at $7,500.
Tate says to his knowledge, no other students involved in last month’s incident have received the ban from extracurricular events, including graduation, which Zimmerman received.
The next step for Zimmerman and his family, Tate said, could be to take their issue to court. Another option is to appeal the county board’s decision to the state school board. “We’ll be looking at all those options the next several days and try to decided exactly what to try to do,” he said.
No matter which step Zimmerman takes, one thing remains set—he’ll still attend Georgia Tech after receiving his diploma.
“I’ll still be able to go to college and I’ll be able to forget about this eventually in the long run, but just for now, it’s really hard to grasp, because I really did still want to walk with my peers and be able to go through the same things they have the privilege to go through,” Zimmerman said. “This doesn’t change Georgia Tech. I actually spoke with them, and they were really level headed about the situation.
“Compared to this school system, they seemed completely sane—they said this happens, kids make mistakes, they understand that. They just want me to have a fresh start there, which is really comforting, as I’m just ready to start my life there.”
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