Clinic Defends Student Protesters

January 28, 2007Duke Law News

The Children's Education Law Clinic, together with the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh, successfully represented two high school students suspended from school for their participation in a student protest of immigration law changes being debated in Congress. As a result of the representation of the two students, all thirty students who participated in the protest were permitted to return to school before the expiration of their original ten-day suspensions. Although the Clinic and the Justice Center prepared a civil rights lawsuit, the case was settled hours before the suit was to be filed.

“What was so remarkable to me was how principled the protest was: this was not a bunch of kids playing hooky or causing mayhem; these students walked out of the school calmly and quietly, they marched for ten miles (all the way to the courthouse and back), and even after they were suspended, the very next day, they were out there marching again,” said Children’s Education Law Clinic student Amy Edwards ‘07, who worked on the case. “I felt very fortunate to be involved in this case: it was a great reminder of why I came to law school.”

On March 29, 2006 a group of Hispanic students at Smithfield-Selma High School organized a school walk-out to join the nationwide movement to protest the proposed changes to federal immigration laws, including a change that would have made it a criminal offense to assist an illegal immigrant. Approximately 30 students walked out of school in the middle of the day, and marched to the courthouse displaying signs expressing their views. The students left the campus between classes and did not disrupt any activities at school. The students missed two class periods.

The principal of the school stated that he told the students not to leave, but they did so anyway. As a result, he issued ten-day suspensions for all of them. The usual suspension for skipping school is a maximum of three days for a first offense. According to the students, a police officer who escorted the protestors informed them that the principal suspended them all while they were out walking, and that they would be considered trespassers if they returned to the school grounds. This left many of them without transportation home, as they were expecting to ride the school bus.

One student initially came forward wanting to challenge the legality of the suspensions. The Clinic wrote a demand letter to the principal, alleging that the suspension had violated the student’s constitutional rights. In response, the principal allowed the student to return to school. Hearing of that student’s success, a second student came forward asking for legal representation. At that point, the Clinic and the Justice Center began preparing the lawsuit, alleging both due process and First Amendment violations. Upon being threatened with the lawsuit, the school officials agreed to end the suspensions of all thirty students who had been affected.

“I was elated when the first student’s suspension was rescinded, but in a way, it was bitter sweet: I couldn’t help but think, ‘What about the other twenty-nine?’ It seems I may have underestimated the power of precedent,” Edwards added.

“I found the decision to suspend the students for that length of time truly ironic,” commented Jane Wettach, director of the Children’s Education Law Clinic. “In 10th grade Civics, the students are supposed to learn about the roles that citizens can take in promoting or inhibiting change through political action and participate in civic life, politics, and government, For the students to be severely punished for doing exactly that is not only short-sighted but counterproductive. In my view, the school missed a golden teaching moment. It could have used the student walk-out as a catalyst for teaching about protest movements from history, the legislative process, as well as immigration policy. Instead, it just deprived the kids of their education.”

A number of the Clinic students had the opportunity to contribute to the case, most doing research for the lawsuit. The claims that would have been included in the case, had it been filed, involved deprivation of due process and violations of the right of free expression.