Dougherty Co. teacher case heads to supreme court

Five Dougherty County teachers are in the midst of a lawsuit slated for the supreme court....
Five Dougherty County teachers are in the midst of a lawsuit slated for the supreme court. (Source: WALB)
Updated: May. 3, 2018 at 6:00 PM EDT
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The alleged incident happened in the cafeteria of Albany Middle School. (Source: WALB)
The alleged incident happened in the cafeteria of Albany Middle School. (Source: WALB)

DOUGHERTY CO., GA (WALB) - A ruling by a Dougherty County judge is raising concern about a potentially flawed system by a state agency.

It comes after a group of Dougherty County teachers and administrators were placed on a child abuse registry by an investigator with the Division of Children and Family Services.

It's important to note that no criminal charges were filed against these teachers and administrators by the school system's police department.

A judge ordered to remove those teachers from the list.

The state appealed the judge's order.

Now it will be argued before the state's highest court.

The case boils down to whether or not the teachers' constitutional rights were violated when their names were placed on the list.

If the teacher's names had remained on the list, they could have lost their jobs working with children.

But, the state argues that the current practices by DFCS abide by the constitution.

It stems from an alleged incident in the cafeteria of Albany High School in April 2017.

A supreme court brief says a teacher was told about an incident in the lunchroom. The students were playing spin the bottle when some students inappropriately touched a female student. According to the supreme court's summary, someone reported the incident to a teacher who then notified police.

The Dougherty County School Police, Albany Police as well as the Department of Family and Children Services were called about the incident.

According to the brief, a DFCS employee investigated the incident, ultimately putting five teachers and administrators on the Georgia Child Protective Services Information System,  also known as the child abuse registry, an action that immediately put their jobs at jeopardy.

"This was not properly investigated. It was unfair and inaccurate actually, in our view," explained Tommy Coleman, the attorney for the  Dougherty County School Board. He said the school board was appalled by the news. He said none of the teachers put on the list were there when the incident happened.

"They unilaterally placed them on the list," said Colemen. "The way this code section works, you are placed on the list and all of a sudden you are on a child abuse registry. You can appeal to get off the list, but you are already on it."

The attorneys for the teachers say in the supreme court brief the investigation was cursory and careless, saying a determination was made without "weighing the evidence."

The state's attorney said that DFCS has a system in place the teachers and the superior court did not follow. When someone is placed on the registry they are mailed Notices of Inclusion, giving them 10 days to ask for a hearing.

The teachers asked for a hearing but also filed a lawsuit against the DFCS investigator, the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services and the director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.

The teachers challenged the constitutionality of the child abuse registry statues.

The school board filed an amicus brief, or friend of the court, in support of the teachers.

"Usually what happens with the law is before any punishment or action is taken, there is some sort of hearing, you get notice of what is happened and a chance to defend yourself before it's on there. But this is sort of after the fact which is one of the central issues in the appeal," said Coleman.

A Dougherty County superior court judge ruled in favor of the teachers. The judge said that the rules and regulations governing the Child Protective Services Information System are unconstitutional.

"Nobody wants to protect child abusers, but at the same time we can't have a system where the state goes around identifying child abusers without them having a chance to defend themselves," said Coleman.

The state's attorneys appealed the judge's ruling. They said the named defendants for the state are barred by sovereign immunity. They also argue the superior court judge should have dismissed the lawsuit because the teachers hadn't exhausted the administrative remedies the state has in place.

There are still some big questions surrounding this case.

The majority of the case is sealed, which means the public doesn't have access to all of the details of the case.

All WALB can see is the supreme court's summary and briefs.

Those briefs outline the arguments but there is little information about the alleged abuse incident and how it was investigated by the state. We could learn those details when the case is argued before the supreme court next week.

This will not be the first case the supreme court has heard in reference to the child abuse registry.

In February, the supreme court heard a case out of Lamar County. According to the supreme court's summary of that case, a man was placed on the registry and had an administrative appeal where he challenged the constitutionality of being placed on the list. The administrative law judge denied the challenge. The man appealed that ruling and went before a superior court judge. The judge ruled that the registry was unconstitutional under the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and parallel provisions of Georgia's constitution.

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