Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Before You Suspend Me, Can I Call a Lawyer?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Before You Suspend Me, Can I Call a Lawyer?

Article excerpt

With the principal as the prosecutor and six teachers as the jury, the scene was a little like "Law and Order" meets "Boston Public."

Facing sexual-harassment allegations in this "quasi-judicial" setting, Nic Roberts, then a high school junior, says a key player was missing: his own lawyer.

Eventually punished for a suggestive comment and gesture when he and his classmates were paired off to play Scrabble, Roberts, an ROTC member, left his Asheville, N.C., high school after a long- term suspension and finished at a military school.

Mr. Roberts is now in his mid-20s, married, and taking college classes. He's also the central figure in a North Carolina Supreme Court case. At issue: whether his right to due process under the Constitution's 14th Amendment was violated when his lawyer was forced to sit in the hall during the school disciplinary hearing.

As zero-tolerance policies have multiplied, high school and even college careers have been on the line for students across the country.

The North Carolina decision, expected this spring, will become part of a growing body of case law that explores issues ranging from students' constitutional rights to the question of whether errant teens should be provided with public defenders if they can't afford a lawyer.

"Other jurisdictions are going to be looking at this decision to try to decide which way they should be going," says Asheville attorney Paul Bidwell, who represents Roberts.

Today, a classroom crime has far more ability to darken a student's future than a decade ago, experts say. And while most schools try to do right by all their students, the emerging debate over the role of lawyers indicates a new reality in school discipline.

"Students all across the country are facing grave consequences - being kicked out, having their entire futures jeopardized - from what happens in school disciplinary hearings," says Alex Koroknay- Palicz, the president of the National Youth Rights Association in Washington. "They need all the constitutional protection they can get."

If the judges rule in Roberts's favor, it will be the first time a state high court has affirmed a student's right to have a lawyer at a disciplinary hearing. In 2001, the Indiana Supreme Court struck down a similar case on the basis that having lawyers at every hearing would create an undue "fiscal burden" on school districts. And a ruling in a 1986 Missouri case found that a hearing for sexual harassment had met the minimum burden for due process - even though the student did not have a lawyer present.

About half the states already allow lawyers at disciplinary hearings. But school districts find that their presence sometimes gums up an already overburdened bureaucracy.

"We recently had one student who came to a suspension hearing with a lawyer, two court reporters, and an entourage of witnesses," says Ann Majestic, a Raleigh attorney who represents school districts. …

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