Law prof vies for NC teens’ rights in court

More than two years after her clients were suspended for fighting after school, Duke Law professor Jane Wettach was in North Carolina Supreme Court Monday arguing that the two high school girls were stripped of their constitutional right to an education.

In January 2008, six teenage students in Beaufort, N.C. were suspended for the remainder of the school year from Southside High School for participating in a fistfight that subsequently made it onto YouTube. After also being denied access to Beaufort County’s alternative school for troubled youth, two of the suspended students—Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy—sued the school district in hopes of being allowed back to the classroom.

Although King and Hardy were not allowed to return to school until the following year, their case has now made it to the highest court in the state. Wettach is asking the N.C. Supreme Court to set a standard so that similar cases—fights that do not include weapons or injuries—would not receive similarly harsh repercussions, causing students to sit idle for months. Of the six suspended students, only King plans to attend college next year, The New York Times reported last week.

Wettach, who directs the Children’s Law Clinic at the Law School, said she based her argument on a 1997 school funding case, Leandro v. State. In that case, the state Supreme Court interpreted the State Constitution’s right to a public education to mean that the state must put forth a “compelling interest” in order to deprive a student of his or her right to attend school.

“That was really the crux of our case,” Wettach said. “They didn’t provide a reason at all [for the suspensions].”

The school district is arguing that the students temporarily forfeited their right to an education through their misconduct, and furthermore, that the state is only obligated to justify the initial suspension according to its disciplinary policy. The school system’s lawyer, Trey Allen, said such disciplinary decisions should not be scrutinized by the courts.

“If the court were to adopt [Wettach’s] position... it would lead to courts becoming student discipline policy makers,” he said. “We think the courts should defer to the expertise of the legislature in education matters... and to local school boards since they’re the ones who have to make the on-the-ground decisions.”

Erwin Byrd, staff attorney for the Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services project, said the 1997 case proves there is a constitutional issue at play, and thus, courts ought to apply strict scrutiny to such cases.

“These days, there’s all kinds of alternatives to being in your regular classroom,” said Byrd, who originally brought the case to Wettach and served as her co-counsel. “If the school district says, ‘We’re just not going to offer a student any of these things,’ they need to show a compelling reason why not.”

The State Supreme Court will likely release its decision this year, though Allen said it will probably take several months.


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