Would-Be Valedictorian Takes to the Courts

     ROME, Ga. (CN) – A high school senior wants a federal judge to ensure that his participation in a senior prank that got out of hand won’t stop him from being named valedictorian and walking with his classmates at graduation next week.
     Jacob Zimmerman, a senior at East Paulding High School, says he has a 100.476 out of 100 grade point average and hopes to graduate as valedictorian of his class.
     In March of this year, Zimmerman was one of about 24 students who participated in a “senior-prank tradition in which graduating seniors spray paint the road outside the school with messages like ‘Seniors,’ their graduating year or a skull and crossbones,” according to the complaint.
     East Paulding High School seniors have allegedly spray-painted the road outside of the school for the past several years without punishmen.
     Zimmerman said he opted to paint a skull and crossbones, as students in the past had done.
     “Unfortunately, this year was unexpectedly different,” according to the complaint.
     “Other students escalated the events when they began to paint vulgar language on the road and began to spray paint and destroy school property,” Zimmerman added.
     Uncomfortable with the turn of events, Zimmerman said he left and walked home. Police later arrived on the scene and arrested the remaining students.
     Shortly after, however, Zimmerman admitted his involvement to police and school authorities.
     The school allegedly reacted by suspending Zimmerman from school for 10 days.
     East Paulding High School principal Scott Viness also recommended suspending Zimmerman for the rest of the school year, but allowing the student to participate in the graduation ceremony, according to the complaint.
     Viness allegedly said Zimmerman violated the Student Code of Conduct, “which bars students from engaging in conduct that ‘could result in the student being criminally charged with a felony and which makes the student’s continued presence at school a potential danger to persons or property at the school or which disrupts the educational process.'”
     Zimmerman says he was the only student who exercised his right for a hearing, which is required for students suspended for more than 10 days, and the disciplinary tribunal upheld the suspension that Viness recommended.
     “The tribunal ignored that the school had not met its burden under the school’s Code of Conduct, ignored Zimmerman’s limited role in the senior prank, and ignored Zimmerman’s prior exemplary record,” according to the complaint.
     Zimmerman says he appealed the tribunal decision before the Paulding County Board of Education and spoke with press about the school’s decision, “which the defendants did not want.”
     “Zimmerman’s statements to the press include but are not limited to comments he made to FOX5 on or about March 30, 2012, and to the Atlanta Journal Constitution on or about April 2, 2012,” according to the complaint.
     But the school board upheld the tribunal’s decision and barred him from participating in the graduation ceremony scheduled for May 26.
     “Zimmerman received the harshest punishment from the school for the senior prank even though his involvement was limited, he left when the situation escalated, and he had an exemplary record,” the lawsuit states. “Simply put, defendants singled out Zimmerman for the harshest punishment because he had exercised his First Amendment rights.”
     As Zimmerman is not allowed to attend school, he says he is limited to instruction at an alternative school, which may prevent him from being valedictorian of his class.
     Following graduation, Zimmerman plans to attend Georgia Institute of Technology and study aerospace engineering, according to the complaint.
     The school board and its six members are named as defendants along with the Superintendent Cliff Cole and principal Viness.
     Zimmeran seeks an injunction for violations of the First Amendment. He is represented by S. Lester Tate III of Akin & Tate in Cartersville and Jeffrey Bramlett of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore in Atlanta.

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