Supreme Court sides with expelled teens

staff writerOctober 9, 2010 

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CORRECTION

A headline on Page 3B on Saturday misstated the status of two teenagers kicked out of school two years ago in Beaufort County. The teens were suspended.

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Two teenagers kicked out of school for five months two years ago in Beaufort County have a right to know the school system's reason for not providing them an alternative way to keep up with their classes.

The state Supreme Court issued a 4-3 ruling on Friday that sends the 2-year-old lawsuit filed by Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy against the Beaufort County school system back to the trial courts.

The justices ruled that the school system owes such students a "substantial" and "important" reason why they were not given an alternative.

"This definitely is a victory for the students," said Erwin Byrd, an attorney with Advocates for Children with Legal Aid of North Carolina, one of the law groups representing the teens. "What it's going to mean on the ground is that all administrators, even if a suspension is legal, have to look at alternatives when a student is suspended. That's a huge step forward for North Carolina."

King and Hardy were suspended from their Beaufort County high school after a January 2008 fight and not given an opportunity to go to an alternative school in the system. King and Hardy demanded to know why they were not given alternatives. School administrators did not provide a reason. They said they were within their legal bounds by not providing such information.

The Supreme Court, in a 42-page ruling, disagreed.

Right to education

At issue was whether the trial courts and Court of Appeals were correct to dismiss the teens' case on grounds that they had no constitutional right to an education because they had broken rules.

The case attracted interest from civil rights and education rights groups in North Carolina and around the country. They contended that it was not good for students or society for school districts to force children to languish for months without schooling. They invoked a landmark state Supreme Court decision, called Leandro, which said that students have a constitutional right to a sound, basic education.

Jane Wettach, an attorney with the Children's Law Clinic at Duke University, described the opinion as a partial victory for the teens. "The way I see it is the court did a balancing and came out kind of in the middle," Wettach said.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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