Court: Suspended NC students can go unschooled

Published 9:29 pm Friday, October 8, 2010

By Staff
From Staff, Wire Reports
RALEIGH — North Carolina’s constitution guarantees children an opportunity for a basic education, but doesn’t require alternative schooling for students suspended for misbehavior, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
While local school boards are required by state law to establish at least one alternative learning program for students serving long-term suspensions, school administrators are not required to accommodate every suspended student, the court ruled.
‘‘Because the safety and educational interests of all students receiving alternative education must be protected, students who exhibit violent behavior, threaten staff or other students, substantially disrupt the learning process, or otherwise engage in serious misconduct may be denied access,’’ Justice Mark Martin wrote for the court.
The case started with a fistfight outside a rural high school in January 2008 and attracted the attention of groups ranging from civil rights advocates to school administrators to education groups from Alabama to Chicago.
Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy were sophomore students at Southside High School in Chocowinity when a melee led to sheriff’s deputies handcuffing and briefly arresting a dozen students.
The two girls were suspended from school for the rest of the semester and told they could not attend Beaufort County’s alternative school for troubled students.
Attorneys for the girls argued that violated the state constitution’s right to a public education. North Carolina’s top court ruled in a school funding case in 1997 that the Constitution gives each child a right to a ‘‘sound basic education.’’
But that doesn’t mean protecting students from the consequences of their own misconduct, Martin wrote.
‘‘A critical distinction exists between the state uniformly denying students in low-income districts access to a sound basic education and the state offering all students a sound basic education but temporarily removing students who engage in misconduct that disrupts the sound basic education of their peers,’’ Martin wrote.
The court did rule school administrators must explain why they denied a suspended student any alternatives, sending the case back to lower courts for further action.
King’s mother eventually paid for a home tutor during her semester-long suspension, while Hardy received no schooling until later entering the local alternative school, The Star-News of Wilmington reported in March.
Trey Allen, an attorney for the school board, told the Washington Daily News the court “rejected the plaintiffs’ claims” that a previous court ruling “creates a fundamental right for suspended students to go to the alternative school.”
All the court had before it was the complaint filed on behalf of the plaintiffs, Allen said.
“The court remanded the case because the complaint did not make it clear or did not say anything about the reasons for the denial of alternative education in Ms. King’s case,” he said. “The court did say that intermediate scrutiny is the proper standard for long-term suspensions when (an) alternative school is not offered, but that is a lower level of constitutional review than strict scrutiny.”
Allen added, “The court did not hold that the school board was wrong in this case, it just said that the complaint doesn’t provide the basis for the school board’s decision.”
Attempts to reach one of the mothers involved in the case were unsuccessful Friday evening.