The new law affects all the school districts in North Carolina, requiring them to revamp their school discipline policies. In one of the most significant changes, the new law prohibits school boards from taking a “zero tolerance” approach to school offenses. School boards will no longer be able to prescribe a certain penalty for a specific offense; instead, they must allow the superintendent to take into account all of the circumstances surrounding the incident.
Prof. Jane Wettach, Director of the Duke Children’s Law Clinic which handles school discipline cases, thinks the new law has moved in the right direction. “I’m particularly happy with the provisions that encourage school boards to minimize the use of long-term suspensions,” she said. “Under our current system, too many students are removed from school for too long,” she added. “This new legislation will require all the school boards in North Carolina to rethink their approach to school discipline.”
The new law, which completely rewrites the school discipline provisions in North Carolina, got its genesis three years ago when a group of attorneys representing key players in the school discipline process were brought together by Prof. Wettach. The group agreed to meet together to review the law and come up with a proposal for a change. Representatives of the school boards’ association, the school administrators’ association, the teachers’ association, as well as parents and students ultimately agreed on the new provisions. They were able to find sponsors in both houses of the General Assembly and the bill passed without any controversy.
The previous school discipline law had become disorganized and unwieldy due to the many changes that had been made over time, Prof. Wettach pointed out. In addition, there have been a number of important court decisions that were not incorporated into the statutory law. The new law is a well-organized and comprehensive treatment of school discipline, she said. It still allows individual school districts to write their own codes of conduct and for the most part decide on how students will be penalized. And while each district has flexibility, they must develop a hearing process for students facing long suspensions that guarantee basic due process rights for students. The due process protections are spelled out much more explicitly in the new law, Prof. Wettach continued.
The new law, which was House Bill 736, is to be applied to school districts beginning with the 2011-12 school year. The full text can be found on the N.C. General Assembly’s website at: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/BillLookUp/BillLookUp.pl?Session=2011&BillID=HB+736&submitButton=Go