Students appeal ruling in lawsuit|State’s high court asked to intervene

Published 5:57 am Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Staff Writer

Lawyers for two Southside High School students who were expelled from school nearly two years ago took their legal battle over a school system’s obligation to provide those students an alternative education to the N.C. Supreme Court on Monday, a lawyer for the two students said.
The lawyers are appealing an Oct. 20 ruling by the N.C. Court of Appeals, which sided with the Beaufort County Board of Education’s decision to impose on the students a lengthy suspension from school as a result of a Jan. 18, 2008, fight.
“A notice of appeal is being filed today,” said Jane Wettach, a lawyer with the Children’s Law Clinic at the Duke University School of Law, in an interview Monday. The clinic, based at Duke University in Durham, provides free legal services to low-income families in cases that involve education and other issues affecting children.
At issue is whether students who receive long-term suspensions are entitled to receive an alternative education — provided by a school system — during their suspensions.
Wettach said the Children’s Law Clinic will seek an expanded legal definition of the “fundamental right to a sound basic education” that applies to school suspensions similar to the legal definition that now applies to school funding as a result of a ruling in the 1997 case involving then-student Robert A. Leandro.
Lawyers representing the students and the school board have said the current case could be one of the most significant cases since the Leandro ruling.
School board Chairman Robert Belcher said Monday that local educators “assumed” that the appeal would be filed.
Continued legal action in the case will not affect the two students who filed the original lawsuit because “they are back in school and doing fine as I understand it,” Belcher said.
But, he said, a high-court reversal of the Court of Appeals’ opinion would significantly affect a school system’s ability to suspend its students for a long period of time.
“That would be a mistake,” Belcher said. “Sometimes students do something that is so grievous, they should not be in school.”
The case now before the state’s high court is one of two cases filed against the Beaufort County Board of Education on behalf of Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy, who were 10th-grade students at Southside High School when a fight broke out Jan. 18, 2008, at the school. As a result of the fight, they were suspended from school for 10 days beginning Jan. 24, 2008. Subsequently, then-Superintendent Jeffrey Moss followed a recommendation from then-Principal Todd Blumenreich that the students be suspended for the remainder of the 2007-2008 school year.
In their Oct. 20 ruling, two members of a three-judge Court of Appeals panel sided with the local school board, saying that the ability of students subjected to long-term suspensions to receive alternative education during their suspensions should be left to the discretion of school boards. A third judge disagreed, saying that previous court decisions over school-funding issues establish that the right to education is a fundamental right.
That dissent guaranteed lawyers for the students the right to appeal the case to the state’s high court.