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Date: 10-08-2010

Case Style: Viktoria King v. Beaufort County Board of Education

Case Number: 480A09

Judge: Martin

Court: Supreme Court of North Carolina

Plaintiff's Attorney: Children’s Law Clinic, Duke Law School, by Jane Wettach; and Advocates for Children’s Services, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc., by Erwin Byrd and Lewis Pitts, for plaintiff-appellant.

Edelstein and Payne, by M. Travis Payne, for North Carolina Advocates for Justice, amicus curiae.

University of North Carolina School of Law Center for Civil Rights, by Mark Dorosin and Benita N. Jones, for Advancement Project, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Inc., Advocates for Children of New York, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, American Civil Liberties Union, Barton Child Law & Policy Clinic, Center for Civil Rights at UNC School of Law, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, Children and Family Justice Center; Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, Connecticut Legal Services, Inc., Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Education Law Center, Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Legal Aid Society of Birmingham, Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago; NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., National Association of Counsel for Children, National Association of Social Workers, National Children’s Law Network, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, New York Law School Racial Justice Project, Public Counsel, Southern Poverty Law Center, TeamChild, University of Tennessee College of Law Education Law Practicum, Sharon A. Bourne-Clarke, Melissa Kenney Ngaruri, Heather E. Price, Russell Skiba, Anita Wadhwa, and Julie Waterstone, amici curiae.

Laurie Gallagher for Council for Children’s Rights, amicus curiae.

Jack Holtzman for North Carolina Justice Center, Concerned Citizens for the Betterment of Beaufort County Schools, Parents Supporting Parents, Tamar Birckhead, American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Inc., Office of the Juvenile Defender, North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus, and NC Conference of NAACP Branches, amici curiae.

Defendant's Attorney: Tharrington Smith, L.L.P., by Curtis H. Allen III, for defendant-appellee Beaufort County Board of Education.

Robert F. Orr and Charles L. Becton, amici curiae. Campbell Shatley, PLLC, by Christopher Z. Campbell; and Allison B. Schafer, General Counsel, for North Carolina School Boards Association, amicus curiae. Ann McColl, General Counsel; and William A. Tobin, Social Science Research Institute, Duke University, for North Carolina Association of School Administrators, amicus curiae.

Description: This case presents the question of whether the Beaufort County School Board and its superintendent (defendants) violated state law by denying Viktoria King (plaintiff) access to alternative education during her long-term suspension from school. After considering longstanding precedent affording school officials discretion in administering student disciplinary codes and recent cases recognizing a state constitutional right to a sound basic education, we hold that defendants must articulate a reason for denying plaintiff access to alternative education during her long-term suspension.

On 18 January 2008, plaintiff, a sophomore at Southside High School in Beaufort County, participated in a fight involving numerous students. She received a ten-day suspension for her involvement in the fight. The principal at Southside High School also recommended that plaintiff receive a long-term suspension. On 1 February 2008, the Beaufort County Superintendent, Jeffrey Moss, adopted the principal’s recommendation and suspended plaintiff for the remainder of the 2007-2008 school year without offering her alternative education. Plaintiff timely appealed the suspension to a panel of central office administrators. On 13 February 2008, the panel conducted a due process hearing and subsequently upheld the decision.

On 20 February 2008, plaintiff filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. Plaintiff alleged that defendants violated her state constitutional right to a sound basic education by failing to provide her access to alternative education. Plaintiff also filed a Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction, requesting that the trial court order defendants to provide educational services to plaintiff during her suspension.

The trial court denied this motion and dismissed plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(7) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, affirmed the trial court’s ruling in favor of defendants. King ex rel. Harvey-Barrow v. Beaufort Cty. Bd. of Educ., ___ N.C. App. ___, 683 S.E.2d 767 (2009).

Plaintiff alleges that defendants’ denial of alternative education during her long-term suspension is a violation of the state constitution. Before this Court plaintiff repeatedly emphasized the importance of requiring defendants to articulate a reason for denying her access to alternative education. While the state constitution requires defendants to provide a reason for refusing alternative education to plaintiff, we decline plaintiff’s invitation to create a constitutional right to alternative education for students who violate lawful school rules.

The General Assembly has enacted a comprehensive statutory scheme specifying the powers and duties of local school boards and school officials in connection with school discipline and alternative education. The statute vests school officials with the authority to issue long-term suspensions to students “who willfully violate[] the policies of conduct established by the local board of education.” N.C.G.S. § 115C-391(c) (2009). Section 115C-47(32a) requires local boards of education to “establish at least one alternative learning program and . . . adopt guidelines for assigning students to alternative learning programs.” Id. § 115C-47(32a) (2009). In addition to mandating alternative learning programs, the General Assembly requires local boards of education to create “strategies for providing alternative learning programs, when feasible and appropriate, for students who are subject to long term suspension or expulsion.”

Id. The statute encourages school boards to incorporate these strategies into their “safe school plans,” which are “designed to provide that every school . . . is safe, secure, and orderly . . . .” Id.; N.C.G.S. § 115C-105.47 (2009). This comprehensive scheme grants long-term suspended students a statutory right to receive alternative education when feasible and appropriate.

In acknowledging a statutory right to alternative education, we stress that a fundamental right to alternative education does not exist under the state constitution.

Nevertheless, insofar as the General Assembly has provided a statutory right to alternative education, a suspended student excluded from alternative education has a state constitutional right to know the reason for her exclusion. This right arises from the equal access provisions of Article IX, Section 2(1) of the North Carolina Constitution. See Leandro v. State, 346 N.C. 336, 347, 488 S.E.2d 249, 255 (1997) (“Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 of the North Carolina Constitution combine to guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.” (emphasis added)); Sneed v. Greensboro City Bd. of Educ., 299 N.C. 609, 618, 264 S.E.2d 106, 113 (1980) (“[E]qual access to participation in our public school system is a fundamental right, guaranteed by our state constitution and protected by considerations of procedural due process.” (citations omitted)). Because exclusion from alternative education potentially infringes on a student’s state constitutional right to equal educational access, school administrators must articulate a reason when they exclude a long term suspended student from alternative education.

Having observed that our holding does not recognize a state constitutional right to alternative education, we consider the standard of review to be applied when a suspended student is denied access to alternative education. The present case requires us to harmonize the rational basis test employed in school discipline cases with the strict scrutiny analysis that formed a part of this Court’s constitutional holding in school funding cases. Compare Hutchins v. [Sch. Comm. of] Durham, 137 N.C. 68, 70-71, 49 S.E. 46, 47 (1904) (“[T]he constitutional guarantee that tuition shall be free and the schools equally open to all is necessarily subject to reasonable regulations to enforce discipline by expulsion of the disorderly and protection of the morals and health of the pupils.” (citations omitted)), with Leandro, 346 N.C. at 345, 488 S.E.2d at 254 (“[T]he right to education provided in the state constitution is a right to a sound basic education.”). The tension between these differing standards of review must be resolved in a manner that (1) protects student access to educational opportunities, while (2) preserving the discretion of school officials to maintain safe and orderly schools.

North Carolina courts have historically accorded school administrators great deference in the exercise of their disciplinary authority. For instance, in Coggins ex rel. Coggins v. Board of Education, this Court upheld the school board’s decision to bar students from participating in certain organizations. 223 N.C. 763, 770, 28 S.E.2d 527, 532 (1944). In so doing, we noted that “the local board is the final authority so long as it acts in good faith and refrains from adopting regulations which are clearly arbitrary or unreasonable.” Id. at 769, 28 S.E.2d at 531. In Craig ex rel. Craig v. Buncombe County Board of Education, the Court of Appeals upheld the decision of school officials to suspend students for smoking on campus since the school’s “legitimate concerns” were “reasonably related to the educational process and thus provide[d] a rational basis for the regulation.” 80 N.C. App. 683, 686, 343 S.E.2d 222, 224 (1986) (citation omitted), disc. rev. denied and appeal dismissed, 318 N.C. 281, 348 S.E.2d 138 (1986). Indeed, the Court of Appeals observed that “a student may be constitutionally suspended or expelled for misconduct whenever the conduct is of a type the school may legitimately prohibit.” In re Jackson, 84 N.C. App. 167, 176, 352 S.E.2d 449, 455 (1987).

Despite this well-established precedent, plaintiff urges this Court to adopt strict scrutiny for school disciplinary determinations. Most courts, however, review school disciplinary decisions using a more deferential standard. See, e.g., Tucson Pub. Sch., Dist. No. 1 v. Green ex rel. Askew, 17 Ariz. App. 91, 94, 495 P.2d 861, 864 (1972); Satan Fraternity v. Bd. of Pub. Instruction, 156 Fla. 222, 225, 22 So. 2d 892, 893 (1945); Wilson v. Hinsdale Elementary Sch. Dist. 181, 349 Ill. App. 3d 243, 248, 810 N.E.2d 637, 642 (2004); S. Gibson Sch. Bd. v. Sollman, 768 N.E.2d 437, 442 (Ind. 2002); Davis v. Hillsdale Cmty. Sch. Dist., 226 Mich. App. 375, 379-81, 573 N.W.2d 77, 79 (1997) (per curiam); Busch v. Omaha Pub. Sch. Dist., 261 Neb. 484, 488, 623 N.W.2d 672, 677 (2001); Hamilton v. Unionville-Chadds Ford Sch. Dist., 552 Pa. 245, 247, 714 A.2d 1012, 1014 (1998). Even the Supreme Court of Wyoming, one of the few state courts to apply strict scrutiny in this context, acknowledges that “school districts are in the best position to judge the student’s actions in light of all the surrounding circumstances and tailor the appropriate punishment to fit the unique circumstances of each student’s situation.” In Re RM, 2004 WY 162, ¶ 25, 102 P.3d 868, 876 (Wyo. 2004). Put simply, “the special context of public schools requires a more lenient approach to reviewing the decisions of school officials, and the professional judgments of school officials on school safety and student discipline issues are entitled to appropriate judicial deference.” John Dayton & Anne Proffitt Dupre, Searching for Guidance in Public School Search and Seizure Law: From T.L.O. to Redding, 248 Educ. L. Rep. 19, 27-28 (2009) (citations omitted).

At the same time, we have held strict scrutiny applicable to some educational issues. In Leandro v. State, this Court applied strict scrutiny to the question of whether the state had failed to provide students in low-income districts “a sufficient education to meet the minimal standard for a constitutionally adequate education.” 346 N.C. at 342, 488 S.E.2d at 252. Within the context of school funding, the Court concluded that “Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 of the North Carolina Constitution combine to guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.” Id. at 347, 488 S.E.2d at 255.

In contrast to our school discipline cases, Leandro placed the burden on the state “to establish that [its] actions denying this fundamental right [were] ‘necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest.’” Id. at 357, 488 S.E.2d at 261 (citation omitted); see Stephenson v. Bartlett, 355 N.C. 354, 377-78, 562 S.E.2d 377, 393 (2002) (“Under strict scrutiny, a challenged governmental action is unconstitutional if the State cannot establish that it is narrowly tailored to advance a compelling governmental interest.” (citation omitted)).

But Leandro does not immunize students from the consequences of their own misconduct. 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. As we have said, “The right to attend school and claim the benefits afforded by the public school system is the right to attend subject to all lawful rules and regulations prescribed for the government thereof.” Coggins, 223 N.C. at 767, 28 S.E.2d at 530. School administrators undeniably possess both freedom and flexibility to punish students who disrupt the educational process or endanger other students. See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 580, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725, 738 (1975) (“[O]ur schools are vast and complex. Some modicum of discipline and order is essential if the educational function is to be performed.”); Doe v. Superintendent of Sch. of Worcester, 421 Mass. 117, 131, 653 N.E.2d 1088, 1096 (1995) (“[A] student’s interest in a public education can be forfeited by violating school rules.” (citations omitted)).

Notwithstanding the long history of judicial deference to the disciplinary determinations of school administrators, plaintiff argues that her Leandro right to a sound basic education requires us to apply strict scrutiny to defendants’ decision to deny her alternative education. We reject plaintiff’s attempt to sever the alternative education determination from her own misbehavior. These matters are legally inseparable in that administrative procedures for the provision of alternative education are inextricably linked with administrative planning for school safety. See N.C.G.S. § 115C- 47(32a) (encouraging local school boards to incorporate their strategies for providing alternative education to long-term suspended students into their safe school plans); id. § 115C- 105.47(b)(3) (indicating that safe school plans must include mechanisms to provide alternative education placements for “seriously disruptive” students).

In any event, adoption of strict scrutiny to review disciplinary determinations would necessarily require judges to routinely substitute their own views for those of school administrators. Amicus North Carolina School Boards Association observes: “[Plaintiff] invites this Court to do something that the General Assembly has been unwilling to do: force schools to provide alternative educational services to students who are temporarily removed from school due to their own dangerous or disruptive behavior.” We agree with amicus that adoption of strict scrutiny for disciplinary and alternative education decisions by school officials would render “long-term suspension practically unusable as a form of student discipline and flood[] the courts with litigation regarding a myriad of discretionary administrative decisions.” Defendant school board adds: “Under Plaintiff’s radical interpretation of Leandro, . . . courts would be called upon to micro-manage student discipline matters in protracted litigation challenging good faith efforts by the legislature and local boards to maintain safe and orderly schools.” We are unwilling to go so far.

Strict scrutiny fails to accord sufficient respect for school officials’ informed judgments regarding the provision of alternative education and imposes untenable administrative burdens. In each case in which a school administrator determines that an alternative education placement is inappropriate, the school must prove its disciplinary decision is narrowly tailored to effectuate a compelling interest. See, e.g., Stephenson, 355 N.C. at 377-78, 562 S.E.2d at 393 (citations omitted); Treants Enters., Inc. v. Onslow Cty., 83 N.C. App. 345, 351, 350 S.E.2d 365, 369 (1986) (indicating that to survive strict scrutiny, a law “must be narrowly drawn to express only the legitimate interests at stake” (citations omitted)), aff’d, 320 N.C. 776, 360 S.E.2d 783 (1987); see also Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330, 343, 31 L. Ed. 2d. 274, 284 (1972) (noting that strict scrutiny places “a heavy burden of justification . . . on the State”); Blumstein, 405 U.S. at 343, 31 L. Ed. 2d. at 285 (“And if there are other, reasonable ways to achieve those goals with a lesser burden on constitutionally protected activity, a State may not choose the way of greater interference. If it acts at all, it must choose ‘less drastic means.’” (quoting Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479, 488, 5 L. Ed. 2d 231, 237 (1960))).

Because of the unworkable burdens it imposes on school administrators, applying strict scrutiny to long-term suspensions jeopardizes the safety of the greater school community and impedes the educational progress of the suspended student’s peers. See New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 350, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 740 (1985) (Powell, J., concurring) (“The primary duty of school officials and teachers, as the Court states, is the education and training of young people. . . . Without first establishing discipline and maintaining order, teachers cannot begin to educate their students. And apart from education, the school has the obligation to protect pupils from mistreatment by other children, and also to protect teachers . . . .”). In contrast to regulatory statutes and criminal codes enacted by legislative bodies, school disciplinary rules are not drafted to withstand strict scrutiny in courts of law. See Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U.S. 267, 294, 158 L. Ed. 2d 546, 568 (2004) (plurality) (noting that in the context of constitutional review of statutes, “strict scrutiny readily, and almost always, results in invalidation”); Ann L. Majestic, Jean M. Cary & Janine M. Murphy, Chapter 18: Student Conduct Issues, in Education Law in North Carolina § 1802.A.1, at 18-5 (2001) (“[S]chool officials have the difficult task of drafting rules that anticipate and define most misbehavior with specificity and also contain some broad, general phrases that will cover unanticipated misconduct.” (emphasis added)). Indeed, the United States Constitution does not require school rules to withstand such scrutiny. See Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 686, 92 L. Ed. 2d 549, 560 (1986) (“We have recognized that ‘maintaining security and order in the schools requires a certain degree of flexibility in school disciplinary procedures . . . .’” (quoting T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 340, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 733)); id. at 675, 92 L. Ed. 2d at 560 (“Given the school’s need to be able to impose disciplinary sanctions for a wide range of unanticipated conduct disruptive of the educational process, the school disciplinary rules need not be as detailed as a criminal code which imposes criminal sanctions.” (emphasis added)). Consequently, application of strict scrutiny to the student disciplinary process operates to the detriment of our public school communities.

Rational basis review, on the other hand, does not adequately protect student access to educational opportunities or guard against arbitrary decisions or inadvertent errors by school officials. Under this standard, “[i]t is not necessary for courts to determine the actual goal or purpose of the government action at issue; instead, any conceivable legitimate purpose is sufficient.” In re R.L.C., 361 N.C. 287, 295, 643 S.E.2d 920, 924 (emphasis added) (citation omitted), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 1024, 169 L. Ed. 2d 396 (2007). As applied to alternative education determinations, rational basis review undoubtedly upholds administrative decisions even in the absence of a proffered reason, as plaintiff experienced in the present case.

But this Court’s previous recognition of state constitutional rights to equal educational access and a sound basic education compels more exacting review. See Leandro, 346 N.C. at 357, 488 S.E.2d at 261; Sneed, 299 N.C. at 618, 264 S.E.2d at 113. Accordingly, we hold that alternative education decisions for students who receive long-term suspensions are reviewed under the state constitutional standard of intermediate scrutiny. See, e.g., Blankenship v. Bartlett, 363 N.C. 518, 524, 681 S.E.2d 759, 764 (2009) (applying intermediate scrutiny to state constitutional challenge). Under the state intermediate scrutiny standard, school administrators must articulate an important or significant reason for denying students access to alternative education; however, the reasons supporting their decisions do not need to be compelling. See, e.g., id. at 526- 27, 681 S.E.2d at 765-66 (“Judicial districts will be sustained if the legislature’s formulations advance important governmental interests . . . .”). In the school disciplinary context, intermediate scrutiny strikes a practical balance between protecting student access to educational opportunities and empowering school officials to maintain safe and orderly schools.

State law requires local boards of education to establish at least one alternative learning program and create strategies for assigning long-term suspended students to it when feasible and appropriate. N.C.G.S. § 115C-47(32a). Since the General Assembly has chosen to grant this statutory right to long-term suspended students, school administrators cannot arbitrarily deny access without violating the state constitution. See N.C. Const. art. IX, § 2; Leandro, 346 N.C. at 347, 488 S.E.2d at 255; Sneed, 299 N.C. at 618, 264 S.E.2d at 113.

School administrators are not required to provide alternative education to every suspended student, especially those students who forfeit this statutory right through their own misbehavior. 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. For these students, school officials will have little or no difficulty articulating an important or significant reason for denying access to alternative education under the state standard of intermediate review.

We believe considerations of fairness, institutional transparency, and public trust are generally best effectuated when government provides a reason for its denial of services. In the present case, defendants did not articulate any reason for denying plaintiff access to alternative education during her semester-long suspension. The record indicates only that plaintiff participated in “a fight involving numerous students” at Southside High School. Because the people of North Carolina “have a right to the privilege of education,” N.C. Const. art. I, § 15, the requirement that school administrators articulate an important or significant reason for denying educational services is not unduly burdensome.

Even though defendants may have concluded plaintiff’s violent behavior made her a threat to students and staff if she were placed in an alternative learning facility, it is not the role of this Court to speculate why plaintiff was denied alternative education. Nevertheless, when defendants suspended plaintiff for misbehavior they did not have the benefit of this Court’s harmonization of our decision in Leandro with the standards of review applicable to school discipline cases. Cf. State v. McDowell, 310 N.C. 61, 74, 310 S.E.2d 301, 310 (1984) (ordering remand where the trial court could not have been aware of the correct legal standard), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1165, 90 L. Ed. 2d 732 (1986), overruled on other grounds by McDowell v. Dixon, 858 F.2d 945 (4th Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1033, 103 L. Ed. 2d 230 (1989). Accordingly, on remand, defendants should be afforded the opportunity to explain why they denied plaintiff access to alternative education.

* * *

See: http://www.aoc.state.nc.us/www/public/sc/opinions/2010/pdf/480A09-1.pdf

Outcome: We therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to that court for further remand to the trial court for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.


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