In a ruling that puts new restraints on get-tough “zero tolerance” discipline, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday that schools must provide strong reasons for denying alternative schooling or tutoring to students after they are suspended for misbehavior.
The case was brought on behalf of two girls who were suspended for five months in 2008 after a brief fistfight at their high school in Beaufort County that involved no weapons or injuries. The suit did not question the district’s right to suspend them, but protested the additional, harsher step the district took, denying them access to the county’s alternative school for troubled students or help with study at home.
Legal experts said the decision, in a case that had drawn national attention from civil rights groups, children’s advocates and school leaders, was likely to be cited as a precedent as other states confront similar issues. The ruling affects one aspect of the zero-tolerance discipline policies that spread throughout the country over the last two decades, a policy originally intended to weed out dangerous children but one that critics say is used too readily for lesser infractions, derailing the lives of black children in particular.