N.C. Court of Appeals rejects suit claiming public school had constitutional duty to stop student harassment

A split 2-1 panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled against Pitt County elementary school students who argued that ongoing bullying and sexual harassment from classmates stopped them from getting access to a sound education guaranteed by the N.C. Constitution.

That decision reversed a lower court, which would have allowed the students’ constitutional claim to move forward.

In Deminski v. The State Bd. of Educ., the Appeals Court’s majority agreed with the state board, Pitt County school board, and the N.C. School Boards Association that the constitutional guarantee spelled out in the landmark Leandro state Supreme Court ruling said nothing about the harmful impact of bullying or sexual harassment.

Judge Valerie Zachary dissented.

Plaintiff explicitly charges Defendant with the failure to provide the Minor Plaintiffs with the very “nature, extent, and quality of the educational opportunities” to which all public school students are constitutionally entitled pursuant to Leandro.  Plaintiff’s complaint reveals that the hostile classroom environment at Lakeforest Elementary School was such that there was a persistent, two-year-long interruption of the Minor Plaintiffs’ daily test-taking, assignment, and instructional opportunities. Due to Defendant’s indifference to this environment, the “academic performance of all three Minor Plaintiffs fell . . . with the Minor Plaintiffs each suffering substantially adverse educational consequences.”

Taking these allegations as true, as we must, Plaintiff’s claim falls squarely within the constitutional deprivation that was contemplated in Leandro.

Zachary fleshes out the argument.

[I]t would be credulous to differentiate, for constitutional purposes, between a student whose teacher refuses to teach math and a student whose teacher fails to intervene when other students’ harassing and disruptive behavior prevents her from learning it. In the latter instance, the instructional environment may be so disordered, tumultuous, or even violent that the student is denied the opportunity to receive a sound basic education. …

… This is precisely what Plaintiff has alleged in the instant case. At this stage in the proceedings, Plaintiff’s allegations must be taken as true, and the trial court did not err by allowing her the opportunity to produce a forecast of evidence tending to prove the same.

Zachary goes on to note that she would have allowed the case to proceed, with the state added as a defendant, since the state is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing access to a sound, basic education.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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