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Perspective | NC Supreme Court clarifies Leandro rights, in favor of students

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While the ultimate outcome of North Carolina’s Leandro litigation remains uncertain, the meaning of its watershed holding — that the state Constitution guarantees to all students the opportunity to receive a sound basic education — gained newfound and encouraging clarity last month.

In Deminski v. State Board of Education, the state Supreme Court held that when a student is unable to access classroom instruction due to ongoing harassment, and the school district is deliberately indifferent to such conditions, the student has a “colorable claim” under the state constitution.

“In other words,” the court stated, “the government must provide a safe environment where learning can take place.” The court’s ruling in Deminski clarifies the scope of the Leandro right in favor of North Carolina students, and should be celebrated by families, teachers, administrators, and education advocates alike.

The facts that gave rise to the Deminski litigation are unequivocally disturbing. Ashley Deminski’s three children, two of whom are diagnosed with autism, were each subjected to repeated and severe bullying and physical and sexual harassment by several other students while attending elementary school in Pitt County in the fall of 2016. When teachers and school and district administrators were made aware of the harassment, Deminski was told that there was a “process” that would “take time,” but no significant interventions were made. Meanwhile, the harassment continued unabated and the academic performance of all three children fell until Deminski transferred her children to a new school.

Deminski sued the Pitt County Board of Education and the State Board of Education (which was later dismissed from the suit) under Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 of the North Carolina Constitution. Under the court’s landmark 1997 ruling in Leandro, these constitutional provisions combine to guarantee all students the right to a sound basic education.

Deminski’s suit claimed that as a result of the school and district’s inaction toward the ongoing harassment, the district denied the Deminski children this constitutional right. In response, the district sought to have the suit dismissed, asserting that Deminski’s claim was barred by governmental immunity. When the trial court declined to dismiss the suit, the district appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals.

Confined to academics?

On appeal, the court ruled for the school district. Although constitutional claims against the government are not barred by government immunity when there are no other adequate alternative remedies (as here), the court found that Deminski’s constitutional claim was not “colorable,” or valid, in the first place. While the court noted that Leandro established the constitutional rights of students to receive a sound basic education, it stated that those rights are “strictly confined to the intellectual function of academics,” and thus do not apply to the broader classroom environment and cases of student harassment.

“Simply put,” the Court of Appeals stated, “the right guaranteed to students under the North Carolina Constitution is the opportunity to receive a Leandro-compliant education, and that right is satisfied so long as such an education has, in fact, been afforded.” Subsequently, Deminski appealed this ruling to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

On June 11, the state Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, and unanimously held that a student’s right to a sound basic education inherently includes the right to a classroom environment “free from continual imitation and harassment which prevent a student from learning.” Accordingly, the court found that Deminski had indeed brought a colorable constitutional claim against the district. With that right clarified, the case will now return to the trial court for a ruling on the merits.

The court’s ruling in Deminski clarifies the scope of Leandro rights in favor of students and families, and should be celebrated as such. If the court had upheld the ruling of the Court of Appeals in favor of the district, the right to a sound basic education would have been unduly restricted to purely academic functions.

In other words, a student’s Leandro rights would be fulfilled by sitting in a classroom with a teacher saying the right words, regardless of whether that student could actually access the instruction. Plainly, that is not how real learning works. As aptly stated by Chief Justice Paul Newby writing for the Court in Deminski, “the right to a sound basic education rings hollow if the structural right exists but in a setting so intimidating and threatening to students that they lack a meaningful opportunity to learn.”

Instead, the Court’s ruling in Deminski protects the robust panoply of rights that Leandro was intended to establish: all those that ensure that students receive a quality education that prepares them “to participate fully in society as it exist[s] in his or her lifetime.” This collection of rights, according to Deminski, includes the right to a safe learning environment.

Particularly in a time fraught with bitter political divisions regarding education, protecting students — especially those with autism and other learning differences — from bullying and harassment through our state Constitution should be something that we can all celebrate.

Mutual accountability

Opponents of the Deminski ruling, including the North Carolina School Boards Association, argued that including an individualized right to a safe learning environment (as opposed to a system-wide right to educational adequacy) within a student’s constitutional right to a sound basic education would improperly extend Leandro and open the proverbial floodgates of litigation by students against school districts for minor incidents. But both of these claims fall short.

First, while Leandro rights certainly include systemic educational adequacy, they do not exclude individual students from asserting their constitutional rights in particularized cases. If that were the case, the state could fulfill its Leandro obligations by providing a sound basic education on average to most students, while more marginalized students who lack access to that adequate average would be left without remedy. To the contrary, Leandro promised access to a sound basic education to “every child of this state,” including the Deminskis.

Second, the Deminski ruling does not instantly expose school districts to a floodgate of frivolous lawsuits based on individual instances of bullying and harassment in schools. Indeed, this case did not arise from one or two minor or isolated episodes or administrator negligence, but from an ongoing and severe pattern of known abuse that was met with deliberate indifference. If school districts would like to avoid this type of liability, they need not quash every possible instance of student misconduct, but merely respond in any reasonably timely and appropriate way to known and continuous student harassment. This does not and should not seem like too much to ask.

More broadly, fully actualizing and protecting the constitutional rights of North Carolina students should be a goal of families, teachers, administrators, and advocates alike. While policy nuances may muddle our alignment on smaller issues, ensuring that all children in our state — especially those historically on the margins — receive a sound basic education in our public schools should remain the clear north star toward which we all commit to tirelessly working. In that spirit, advocating for the full rights of students can be properly understood not as adversarial attacks against districts and administrators, but as mutual accountability. And in that spirit, the court’s ruling in Deminski can be celebrated by all.

Zack Kaplan

Zack Kaplan is a lawyer and former 5th grade teacher passionate about the intersection of racial equity and education.