Attorney Mitch Skandalakis of Skandalakis Law Group addressed the media Friday morning with three families who report their children experienced extreme bullying at Harrison and Walton High Schools.
“Cobb County ignores bullying. They cover it up by not referring to incidents as bullying,” Skandalakis said.
Jorge Santa moved to Cobb, where his 15-year-old son is a student at Harrison High School, because of the reputation of the schools.
According to Santa, during his son’s freshman year, Jorge Santa-Hernandez Jr. fought back when two students began to bully him in a computer lab. They stole his food, he said, used racial slurs and sprayed silly string in his face. Santa-Hernandez struck one of them, a senior, and wound up facing felony assault charges that were later dropped.
Santa said he met with assistant principal Art O’Neill to discuss his belief that his son’s actions were in self-defense, but in a recorded conversation, O’Neill told him school code supersedes Georgia law. Skandalakis said that is nonsense.
“Many of the student witnesses interviewed by the Cobb County District Attorney’s office stated that the student who bullied and assaulted Jorge was a well-known bully throughout the school,” Skandalakis said. “The teacher present in Jorge’s class at the time of the incident sent Art O’Neill, who is the principal, or assistant principal, that investigated the matter, an email saying that immediately following the altercation, three students came to him and verified that they were bullying Jorge.”
The incident report included the verbiage “joking around” and that the students “demonstrated a lack of common courtesy and school policy.”
Skandalakis also said the senior had a disciplinary file dating back to middle school and various reported incidents had wording such as “student swatted” or “student was roughhousing.”
Two weeks after the Santa-Hernandez incident, the accused bully shot another teenager in the face with a handgun. The victim was hospitalized.
Attorney Robert Madayag of Lee & Hayes is also assisting the families and compared the disciplinary data of CCSD and other metro area counties. He was struck by how few bullying incidents were reported last year by Cobb in comparison to other districts. DeKalb reported one bullying incident for every 162 students, Bartow has one for every 212, and Fulton reports one for every 297. Cobb reported one bullying incident per 1,300 students.
“Nobody in Cobb County decided to actually look at the data they reported. Nobody in the state of Georgia decided to look at the data that was reported by Cobb County and say, why are you so far off of what every other school district in this area is doing, especially school districts that are of comparable size,” Madayag said.
Carol Thompson’s younger son also attends Harrison High School. She says both her sons were bullied by the same student that bullied Santa-Hernandez, but nothing happened despite reports to school administrators and the board of education.
“I think it is 100 percent it will affect their numbers and it will affect their reputation,” Thompson said.
Catherine Busse said she had a better experience dealing with the administration at Walton High School, however, her son has been bullied so much in person and online that he has too much anxiety to return to classes. They are considering their options for his education.
In addition to using misleading language in incident reports, Skandalakis said the school system stonewalls open records requests and forces victims to sign admission statements that they were fighting without parents or an attorney present.
Skandalakis wants to meet with Cobb officials to discuss how they will handle the issue moving forward and hopes state legislators will tighten bullying laws. He will represent the Santa-Hernandez family in a lawsuit against the school system.
When asked for comment, a district spokesperson responded, “The Cobb County School District takes every report of bullying seriously, and we strictly adhere to state and district guidelines concerning these issues.”