Two teenagers kicked out of school for fighting claim the Beaufort County schools denied them their right to an education because it offered them no help keeping up with their classes while they were suspended for months.
The case has attracted interest from civil rights and education rights groups in North Carolina and around the country. They contend that it's not good for students or society for school districts to force children to languish for months without schooling. They invoke a landmark state Supreme Court decision, called Leandro, which said that students have a constitutional right to a sound, basic education.
Pointing to how often North Carolina schools use suspensions for discipline - North Carolina has the fourth highest school suspension rate in the country - the advocacy groups say the state is putting children on a path to academic failure and legal trouble. More than two dozen child advocacy and civil rights groups from Louisiana, Alabama, California and other states have weighed in on the case.
The Beaufort schools, which have support from the state school board and school administrators associations, said students whose education is sidetracked by suspensions cannot claim their constitutional rights have been violated. The Beaufort teenagers were allowed to return to school in the fall of 2008 after missing most of the previous semester.
The school system's lawyer, Curtis M. "Trey" Allen III, said the question of whether schools should be required to offer alternatives to suspended students should be left to the legislature.
Lawmakers have continuously considered and revised laws on suspensions and alternative education, Allen said. "That legislative judgment needs to be respected," he said.
The case is tentatively scheduled for state Supreme Court arguments in March.
Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy were suspended from their Beaufort County high school after a January 2008 fight. Several students got in trouble for fighting that day, but not all were treated the same.
Some students received short-term suspensions. Others were suspended and offered spots in alternative school. Parents of the two suspended students said it was this unequal treatment that convinced them to sue.
Short-term suspensions last 10 days or fewer, and long-term suspensions last longer than 10 days. Some serious offenses may result in full-yearsuspensions. Districts can choose whether to offer alternative education to students during long suspensions.
Revondia Harvey-Barrow, Viktoria's mother, said she paid for online courses so her daughter could keep up with schoolwork after being barred from alternative school. Viktoria is interested in biology and plans to continue her education after high school, but she's still trying to make up for the zeros she got in courses she missed.
"It affected the family drastically," Harvey-Barrow said. "It also threw her behind. She was working toward going to a university. By her missing the whole semester, her GPA fell. She had to struggle with that."
Gail Hardy, Jessica's mother, said the school sent work home for a short time but stopped without explanation.
"She was hard-pressed to find things to do," Hardy said of her daughter. "She was mad most of the time."
Students who serve long suspensions fall behind in school, which increases the likelihood they won't graduate, said Jane Wettach, attorney for the students and director of the Children's Law Clinic at Duke University Law School. Long-term suspensions are considered a stop on the "school to prison pipeline," she said, and there's a national interest in shutting down that pipeline.
Wettach said that states should act at the legislative level and through the courts "to put the brakes on the school systems overusing suspension."
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Wake, Johnston and Durham school districts said they give all students on long-term suspension the opportunity to attend alternative school or take classes online.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a school that offers all core courses as well as electives is open to all students suspended from 10 to 180 days. A separate alternative school is available for students whose long-term suspensions last more than 180 days.
Enrollment in an alternative school in Smithfield is available for Johnston County students on long-term suspension.
Wake County offers online classes in math and English or language arts to students suspended long term. Most students log on at home, said Marvin Connelly, Wake's assistant superintendent for student support services, but some go to sites around the county with Internet access.
Other courses, such as social studies and science, are not offered, though some suspended students take online courses offered by the state Virtual Public School. The district plans to expand course offerings next year, Connelly said.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr and former state Appeals Court Judge Charles L. Becton supported King in a court brief, saying her constitutional rights to a sound, basic education were denied.
The court papers mention Orr's experiences with a Wake County student he has mentored for a dozen years - "JJ," a high school student who has experienced occasional suspensions since he was in middle school. Some suspensions lasted days, and some lasted weeks.
The Wake schools provided no alternative education during JJ's suspensions, the court papers said, and he was not allowed on school grounds. JJ is a sophomore, but he would have been a senior if he had progressed on schedule.
In an interview, Orr said that after one of the suspensions, JJ returned to school and was discouraged by how far behind he'd fallen in one of his classes. He ended up failing it.
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