The Thomaston-Upson County Board of Education at its Tuesday meeting voted 6-1 to uphold the criminal charges brought against 14 Upson-Lee High School students following a May 17-18 senior prank.
The 14 students were suspended from school – resulting in their disallowance from participating in graduation exercises – and were cited for criminal trespass after allegedly climbing over the building and camping out overnight in the courtyard.
Two men, both fathers of students involved in the senior prank, addressed Board of Education members by reading letters addressing the incident and subsequent disciplinary action taken against those involved.
While acknowledging the prank was not a wise decision and admitting the students worthy of some form of disciplinary action, Eddie Edenfield said he and other parents of involved students believed the incident had been poorly handled by Upson-Lee High School Principal Tracey Caldwell.
“I am here to tell you the way the students have been treated in this matter is grossly unfair,” he said.
Edenfield also stated that Caldwell had been previously contacted and told that some parents were considering a lawsuit, but that if the administrator would agree to dismiss the criminal trespass charges, that legal action could be reconsidered. Caldwell then determined the criminal charges would stand.
Steve James also addressed board members, saying his son is sorry for his actions. However, he also believes the matter was handled inappropriately.
“The punishment, we feel, though, was excessive,” he said.
James’ wife, Christy, also later spoke and claimed Caldwell had “changed his mind” with regard to whether the students would be allowed to participate in graduation exercises.
According to Christy James, on the morning of May 18, one of the students asked if they would be allowed to walk with their classmates, and she furthermore alleged Caldwell told the 14 to come to an upcoming practice.
Later, those involved were notified that one aspect of their discipline – the duration of their out-of-school suspension – would exceed the final calendar day of the school term, therefore making them ineligible to participate in the ceremony.
Edenfield also cast the same allegation, further stating that he and other parents believe the disciplinary action was actually determined by Board of Education members who they allege violated the state Sunshine Law by participating in an improper telephone vote concerning the incident.
All three parents who spoke stated their opinion that the students involved had already received adequate punishment and requested the board take action to have the criminal charges dropped.
Prior to any public comments, Board Chairman Terrell Jackson had informed the assembly that no official response would be given Tuesday evening, but would be provided at a special called meeting slated for June 26.
In response, Christy James informed board members that the students’ court hearing is scheduled to be heard July 5, and therefore requested special consideration. Characterizing the students involved as “good kids,” and citing previously made plans, such as church camps, family vacations, jobs, college orientation, and Rush events for those to be involved with college fraternities and sororities, she requested that Superintendent Maggie Shook personally contact the judge to request a calendar change.
Shook agreed to contact Magistrate Court Judge Bentley regarding the date, but that decision was met with dissension.
“I don’t think it’s our responsibility to do that,” said Board of Education member Jacqueline Hollis, adding that she views that action as the parents’ responsibility. “We don’t usually get involved in other people’s fines and dilemmas, so why are we doing this?”
Jackson said he supported Shook contacting the judge, as it is worth doing for “public relations.”
Hollis strongly disagreed, and questioned why the board could not simply make an immediate determination in reference to the criminal charges rather than waiting until the upcoming meeting.
After brief discussion, Caldwell’s handling of the disciplinary action was upheld, with Board member Miriam Elsey casting the lone dissenting vote.
“I feel this whole situation has been completely mishandled,” Elsey stated.
She offered no further insight on how she feels the involved students’ disciplinary action should have been handled.
Due to the board upholding Principal Caldwell’s decision, the June 24 called meeting has been cancelled. The next regular meeting of the Board of Education will be July 26.