PUBLISHED:October 12, 2010

N.C. Supreme Court Rules for Students Represented by Children's Law Clinic

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on October 8, 2010 that school administrators may not deprive public school students of alternative education during a period of suspension without providing a significant reason for such a deprivation. In the case of King v. Beaufort County Board of Education, the Court stated that it was harmonizing its previous ruling that students have a fundamental right to a free, public education with the traditional flexibility that has been given to school administrators in the realm of school discipline. The Court said that its decision “strikes a practical balance between protecting student access to educational opportunities and empowering school officials to maintain safe and orderly schools.”

The Duke Children’s Law Clinic co-counseled the case with Legal Aid of North Carolina. Children’s Law Clinic Director Jane Wettach argued the case before the N.C. Supreme Court and the N.C. Court of Appeals. The Court did not go as far in protecting student rights as the lawyers for the students had urged it to go. Prof. Wettach argued that because education is a fundamental constitutional right for all students, they should be entitled to continued educational services during periods of suspension except in the most compelling circumstances. The majority of the Court instead held that students could be denied alternative education when the school district could articulate an important or significant reason for denying student access to it. Nevertheless, the holding of the court represents a significant step forward in protecting student rights to alternative education during suspension.

The case arose after two high school girls were involved in a school yard fist fight after school at their Beaufort County, North Carolina school. They were both suspended for five months for their involvement in the fight. Although the school district operates an alternative school for suspended students, the girls were not assigned there and were provided no reason for the lack of an offer of alternative services. The girls sued, arguing that the denial of alternative school violated their right to a free public education which is guaranteed to them in the North Carolina constitution.

The Court made clear that a suspended student excluded from alternative education has a state constitutional right to know the reason for her exclusion. Because the school board in Beaufort County neither assigned the girls to the alternative school nor provided any reason for not assigning them, it violated their constitutional rights. The Court reversed the decision of the lower courts and sent the case back to the trial level.