Officials with the Paulding County School System say Jake Zimmerman was not the first student to be barred from taking part in his graduation ceremony as part of a suspension from school that spanned until the end of the school year. But a judge Thursday said that precedent did not trump Zimmerman’s legal right to protest the punishment he received for taking part in a “senior prank” with other students.
Zimmerman was following ; the majority of those arrested were East Paulding students. Zimmerman, like the other students deemed to have been involved in the incident, received from a school tribunal a punishment of 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 .
Zimmerman and his family appealed that punishment to the Paulding County School Board, which on April 10 handed to him an additional punishment—.
That ban led to Zimmerman and his family taking the case to U.S. District Court.
District, board officials: Punishment a long-time precedent
Cliff Cole has served as superintendent of the district since September of 2010; in years prior, he held the offices of deputy superintendent and associate superintendent for the district.
In his affidavit, Cole said that during his approximately six years in those three jobs, the school board historically had prohibited students who had been suspended for the remainder of the school year from taking part in their school’s graduation ceremony.
“In my recollection of the past approximately six years, the Board of Education has never allowed a student to participate in the graduation ceremony if such student was suspended by the Board for the remainder of that school year,” Cole’s affidavit stated. “The Board of Education’s decision to prohibit Jacob Zimmerman from participating in this year’s graduation ceremony is consistent with the discipline imposed upon every other student who has been suspended by the Board for the remainder of a school year. In this case, the Board did not decide the punishment of any student other than Jacob Zimmerman.”
School board member Kim Curl told the court that this board precedent had gone on even longer. Curl, who has served on the board since 1996, also entered an affidavit in the case.
“In my approximately 16 years serving on the Board, I cannot recall a single student who was allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony if such student was suspended by the Board for the remainder of that school year,” his affidavit stated.
Despite the school board’s precedent, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy in his order said the board’s decision to increase Zimmerman’s punishment infringed on his First Amendment right to criticize the school district and board.
“Although Defendant School Board certainly had the right to increase Plaintiff's [Zimmerman’s] punishment, given this unique set of facts, [the board] needed to provide an explanation why it chose to modify [Zimmerman’s] sentence and punish [him] more severely than the similarly situated students who chose not to appeal. [The board], however, provided absolutely no reason why [Zimmerman’s] level of participation in the prank justified a more severe punishment than the other students. Instead, Defendant School Board only stated that the decision was 'in accordance with practices of the board,’” Murphy wrote. “Amongst a large group of students convicted of the same crime, Plaintiff was the only student to appeal his suspension to Defendant School Board, and was the only student barred from participation in graduation. Defendant School Board's decision came directly after his appeal and shortly after he talked to the media.
“Under those circumstances, the Court finds that Defendants fail to demonstrate that Defendant School Board would have barred Plaintiff from graduation ceremonies in the absence of his protected speech. … In sum, the Court finds that the First Amendment protects Plaintiff's right to appeal to Defendant School Board and criticize Defendants' disciplinary process and decisions. … Although Defendant School Board only increased Plaintiff's suspension by one additional day, given the symbolic importance of graduation, a ban from participation in graduation ceremonies would deter a student of ordinary firmness from exercising his right to appeal and criticizing the school in the press. The Court therefore finds that Plaintiff suffered an adverse action.
“Under those circumstances, the Court finds that Defendants banned Plaintiff from participating in the graduation ceremony because of Plaintiff's protected speech.”
But Murphy’s order did not overturn the school district’s punishment of Zimmerman, which means he will remain on long-term suspension through the end of the school year.
“The Court's role is to protect the Constitution, not review school discipline. In any case, the Court has reviewed the tribunal, and, based on [East Paulding Principal Scott] Viness' testimony, is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to support Defendants' contention that Plaintiff's continued presence at the school would ‘disrupt the educational process.’ To avoid disruption, Defendant Viness decided to suspend every student involved in the senior prank for the remainder of the school year. … Given that every student who participated in the prank received exactly the same punishment-suspension through the end of the school year, the Court cannot find that Defendants' decision to suspend Plaintiff through the end of the school year was motivated by Plaintiff's exercise of his First Amendment rights.”
School’s valedictorian honor still undecided
Zimmerman in past interviews said that at the time of the vandalism incident, he had been on pace to remain the school’s valedictorian. His attorney, Lester Tate, on Thursday said that he remains competitive for the school’s honor.
Associate Superintendent Brian Otott on Friday said that East Paulding’s recipient of that honor has yet to be determined.
“They’re still calculating final grades. We do not have that information for any of our schools officially yet—who are valedictorians and salutatorians are,” Otott said.
Should Zimmerman ultimately win that honor, Otott says the determination as to whether he will be allowed to give the traditional valedictorian speech will be made at the school level.
“The decision lies with the principal. I have not yet met with Mr. Viness to discuss it yet, but ultimately it will not be a decision that the district makes,” he said.
Murphy’s order Thursday also addressed the issue, though only in a footnote.
“The Court, however, notes that even if Plaintiff is the valedictorian, Defendant Viness has discretion to determine whether Plaintiff will be permitted to speak at the graduation ceremony.”
According to the order Thursday, the transcript from the disciplinary tribunal hearing prior to the school board’s ruling showed that Viness said Zimmerman would have been allowed to participate in graduation as a regular student, and, if he earned the honor of valedictorian, he could accept the award but not give a speech.
According to the transcript cited by the order, Viness said having Zimmerman give the valedictory speech was just not “the message I want to send.” The tribunal then noted that the decision to allow Zimmerman to speak at graduation was a principal's decision, the order stated.
Judge Murphy's complete order from Thursday is attached to this article.