Alexander v. Cumberland County Bd. of Educ

615 S.E.2d 408 (N.C. App. 2005)

 

Background

Petitioner, Samantha, appealed the superior court's decision affirming her suspension for pulling another girl's pants down. The incident occurred while Samantha was walking in a group of girls to the school's track. As they were walking, Samantha pulled down the pants of another girl in the group, Katie, and Katie's rear-end was exposed to two boys and a girl behind the group. Samantha and Katie were friends and even ate lunch together following the incident. But, during lunch, Katie reported the incident to a substitute teacher who advised her to tell a school administrator. Initially, Katie was suspended for two days until a hearing could be held to determine her ultimate punishment. Prior to the hearing, Samantha's father was given two forms - a Notice of Charges and Hearing and a Notice of Temporary Suspension. At the hearing, Samantha's father informed the school that the Notice of Charges stated that Samantha had been fighting in the lunch room and not that she had pulled down the pants of another girl. The principal acknowledged the mistake and had it fixed. Following the hearing, Samantha was given a ten day suspension and a recommendation for a long-term suspension for the rest of the school-year was made. Samantha appealed the school's recommendation for a long-term suspension and the hearing officer recommended that Samantha's suspension be reduced to 15 days with 10 hours of community service. The Superintendent adopted the hearing officer's recommendation. Samantha's parents petitioned for, and received from the superior court, a temporary restraining order allowing Samantha to remain in school while they appealed the hearing officer's decision to the school board. However, the school board upheld the suspension, although Samantha presented evidence that boys were not suspended for similar incidents. Finally, Samantha's parents appealed to the Cumberland County Superior Court for judicial review. The court upheld the school board's decision and, as a result, Samantha's Guardian Ad Litem appealed alleging that the Board of Education violated Samantha's right to due process.

Relevance to School Disciplinary Hearings

Outlines the standards applied in judicial review of districts' decisions to suspend students for greater than 10 days.

Held

First, the court held that there is no subject matter jurisdiction for judicial review of suspensions of 10 days or less. However, when the suspension is greater than 10 days, judicial review is appropriate to determine whether due process was provided or whether the decision of the administrative agency violated the Administrative Procedures Act. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C - 391(c), (e) (2003). A decision violates the statute if, inter alia, it is unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted or if it is arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.

The court held that, in this case, there was substantial evidence because the "whole record" test showed that Samantha did pull Katie's pants down which violated the school's discipline policy. Additionally, the court found that, although male students did not receive the same punishment for similar behavior, the punishment was not arbitrary or capricious because the school articulated a valid reason for the difference in punishment - that Katie's rear-end was exposed.