Hinds Co. schools sued over student’s dismissal

Published 2:17 pm Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A lawsuit filed Monday by a youth advocacy group against the Hinds County Public School District contends a Terry High student’s rights were violated when he was sent to an alternative school after being accused of throwing a penny that hit a bus driver.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi Youth Justice Project filed the suit in Hinds County Chancery Court on behalf of a student identified only as A.H. in court documents. The suit, which presents only one side of the legal argument, seeks an injunction to allow the student to return to class at the high school.

The district failed to follow its own policies when the student’s parents weren’t allowed to view the evidence against him, Courtney Bowie, director of the MYJP, said during a news conference on Monday.

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Bowie said a March 25 court date had been set in the case.

Hinds County Schools Superintendent Stephen Handley didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, the student was suspended and expelled from the high school on Nov. 16, and sent to the Main Street Alternative School in Bolton.

The action came after a Sept. 28 incident in which the student and five other students were allegedly tossing coins at each other on the back of a school bus, the lawsuit said. One of the pennies landed on the bus driver, Geneva Reid.

The lawsuit contends the student’s confession to throwing the coin was coerced by Terry High School assistant principal Kerry Gray, who told the student there was a videotape of the incident. The suit contends that Gray interrogated the student for 30 minutes, but wouldn’t give him access to his parents.

The district’s policy states that evidence against students will be provided to them when they’re assigned to an alternative school. But Tara Wren Douglas, the student’s mother, said school officials refused to allow her to see the videotape allegedly showing her son toss the coin.

“Even later, the administrators at Terry High School claimed there was no video — all they had was my son’s confession, which was coerced by an assistant principal,” said Douglas, who read from a prepared statement at the news conference.

Bowie said the student doesn’t have an instructor for many of his courses at the alternative school and has to “self-teach” himself some courses online, including biology and world history.

She said her organization decided to take on the case because they believe it indicates what is happening in many of the state’s alternative schools.

“We think the alternative schools are not preparing kids adequately to transition back into the home schools. They don’t provide the full curriculum and they don’t have teachers for all the courses,” Bowie said. “It’s very difficult to transition from that back to your regular high school.”

The advocacy group has filed lawsuits in federal court in the past against juvenile corrections centers in Mississippi, including Columbia Training School, which has since been closed down.