The N. C. Court of Appeals recently handed down its decision in case of Hardy/King v. Beaufort County Board of Education.
This is one of the cases that arose out of the riot at Southside High School on January 18, 2008. The students were suspended for the remainder of the school year and not allowed go to the Alternative School, or provided any other alternative educational activity as were some of the other students. Actually, two appellant cases came out of that incident, one focusing on whether the punishments deprived the of their right to an education and this case. The court previously found against the students of the constitutional right to an education issue. This case focused on the question of whether the students' due process rights were violated.
The court found that the students were given the required hearings, both at the administrative level and at the board level and thus were not deprived of procedural due process.
The tack the students took was to contest the severity of the punishment. They were unable to overcome a long history of legal precedent that holds that the courts will not substitute their judgment for that of a school board absent a clear showing of improper action. The courts have long held that when it boils down to a question of judgment the courts will defer to the judgment of school officials.
The fatal flaw in the students' case was that they admitted guilt to being involved in the fight. The court concluded: "While a different result may have been reached under these facts if petitioners had been contesting the factual basis for their suspensions, we hold that in the circumstances of the instant case petitioners failed to prove they were denied procedural due process."
In discussions with one of the parents she expressed concern about evidentiary question raised at the school board hearing but those get washed away by the admission of guilt.
To keep that from sounding mysterious, here the detail. The video (which we posted on this site) showed that one of the students in this case was attacked by the other student. Yet both students were given the same punishment while the parent of the student attacked felt that self defense was a sufficient reason for differentiated punishment. "It may have been technically legal, but it was not fair and it was not right" that some students who did much worse things got less punishment while others who did the same thing were not suspended for the remainder of the year" she said.
The Observer interviewed over two dozen students who witnessed some part of the riot. We identified most of the individuals in the videos and talked to many of them. It was clear to us that some students who were more serious offenders received much less punishment. One of the worst offenders was back in school within two weeks, but these two students were put out for the remainder of the school year. School officials refused to explain the rationale for the disparities in the punishments. Yet none of this evidence was considered by the Court of Appeals.
Attorneys for the students have indicated that they have yet to decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court. Legal scholars who have reviewed this decision indicate that it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would grant discretionary review. So we assume the case is settled.
But settling the legal issue does not settle the issue of how poorly the administration and school board handled this particular situation and it leaves hanging whether they have taken adequate steps to insure that students will be afforded fair and equitable treatment in future incidents.
The incident is history. What remains is what we can learn from it. And there is little indication that the school system has learned anything, at least in terms of specific actions they might could have taken.
We don't think any of the students who were punished were innocent. Not one of them contended they were. Not one parent with whom we talked contended this child was innocent. But the wide disparity in the punishment for no explicable reason is a travesty of justice, in my opinion. It is poor administration and poor community relations.
It is axiomatic that the "punishment should fit the crime." It did not in the situation.
The sad part about this legal case is that it clearly illustrates that justice is not always the same thing as "legal." We are absolutely convinced that justice was not done in this case and the system did not function the way it should. All we can do is hope it will not happen again.
Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.