Wettach is among five individuals and organizations being honored at the Justice Center’s 12th Annual Defenders of Justice Awards Ceremony and Dinner at Durham’s American Tobacco Campus on Sept. 30. The awards recognize contributions to the Justice Center’s broad mission of ending poverty in North Carolina and for facilitating specific improvements to the lives of poor and working families in the state, explained Executive Director Melinda Lawrence.
The award recognizes both Wettach’s “lifetime of work” as an advocate on behalf of children and families in the state and for recent initiatives on behalf of students subject to long-term school suspensions and expulsions, said Lawrence.
“As director of the Children’s Law Clinic, Jane has not only connected her students with individual cases, but has taken an approach to teaching in which she really has tried to connect her [law] students with broad issues in North Carolina — how the legal system impacts kids’ lives and how particular issues impact kids’ lives,” she said.
Wettach’s ongoing work in reviewing and reforming state laws governing school suspensions and expulsions, and in bringing litigation to clarify the scope of individual students’ constitutional right to education are likely to have a particularly “big impact” for many North Carolina children, said Lawrence.
On the former, Wettach has brought together key stakeholders, including representatives of teachers and school administrators, and parents’ and children’s advocates to review existing laws and how they are applied, and is helping to craft a reform bill for introduction in the N.C. Legislature in 2011.
“We know that kids who are given long-term suspensions or expelled from school are less likely than others to graduate, so it’s important to ensure these actions aren’t taken arbitrarily and kids aren’t suspended or expelled when lesser disciplinary action would do,” said Lawrence. “Jane’s work on the legislation is really groundbreaking.”
Wettach’s advocacy as lead attorney in a case before the N.C. Supreme Court challenging the lack of education options for students subject to long-term suspensions is equally significant, added Lawrence.
While the court found, in its 1997 ruling in Leandro v. State of North Carolina, that North Carolinians have a constitutional right to a sound, basic education, the ruling has never been applied to individual students’ rights to education. “We think this case will resolve that question,” said Lawrence. “The issue is whether kids who have been suspended or expelled have a right to alternative schooling of some sort, be it in-home schooling enrollment in an alternative school, or some other option. This case will introduce the next generation of jurisprudence defining the right. What’s the standard? What do school systems have to show to deny a child the right to education? What do students have to show to demonstrate they are being denied the right?”
The N.C. Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling in the case.
Wettach practiced poverty law in North Carolina for 13 years prior to joining the Duke Law faculty, where she currently teaches Education Law and directs the Children’s Law Clinic. After serving as supervising attorney with Duke’s AIDS Legal Project, she established the Children’s Law Clinic in 2002.
“Jane’s entire career has advanced the voices of people who otherwise don’t have a voice,” said Lawrence