School discipline goes on trial

staff writerMarch 23, 2010 

State Supreme Court justices asked pointed questions Monday about how the constitutional right to an education may be connected to school discipline.

Jane Wettach, a lawyer for two Beaufort County high school students suspended for five months, said districts should not be allowed to deny suspended students access to alternative school without explanation.

Trey Allen, a lawyer for the school district, said students temporarily forfeit their right to an education when they fight at school. The state legislature has crafted carefully considered law on school suspensions, Allen said, and "the court should not intrude into this area."

A central part of the students' argument was the landmark Leandro ruling in 1997, in which the state Supreme Court held that a sound, basic public education is a constitutional right. The case was about school finances, but the students' lawyers said it also applies to the right to attend school.

A constitutional right should not be taken away without explanation, Wettach said.

"There has to be a compelling reason ... why a child might have to be excluded from everything," she said.

Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy were suspended in January 2008 for what Wettach described as a "five-second fight" after school. They were suspended for the rest of the school year and were barred from attending alternative school in the district. Both sued the Beaufort County school system.

The case has attracted national interest from civil rights and education rights groups, which contend it is not good for students or society when school districts force children to languish for months without schooling.

North Carolina has the fourth highest school suspension rate in the country, and advocacy groups say the state is putting children on the path to academic failure and legal trouble. Triangle districts and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools offer all students on long-term suspension the chance to attend alternative school.

Justices asked the lawyers whether a ruling in favor of the students would lead to more school discipline cases ending up in court. The justices also wanted to know whether students who get into fistfights should be left with no schooling.

The courtroom was crammed with observers. The room was so full that some huddled around a desk outside to watch a live feed on a computer monitor.

King, now a high school senior, listened to the arguments from the audience. She said she had been accepted to six colleges and hopes to attend Claflin University in South Carolina.

King said she had to tell the story of her suspension over and over again to colleges but never got an explanation from the school district about why she wasn't allowed to go to alternative school.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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