Law Students Defend Marchers

August 1, 2006

The law school's Children's Education Law Clinic, together with the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh, successfully represented two of thirty high-school students suspended from school for ten days after they participated in a student protest of changes to immigration laws. As a result, all of the students who participated in the protest were permitted to return to school.

"What was so remarkable to me was how principled the protest was," says Amy Edwards, one of the students in the law clinic who worked on the case. "This was not a bunch of kids playing hooky or causing mayhem. These students walked out of the school calmly and quietly. They marched for ten miles--all the way to the courthouse and back--and, even after they were suspended, the very next day they were out there marching again.

"I felt very fortunate to be involved in this case. It was a great reminder of why I came to law school."

On March 29, 2006, a group of Hispanic students at Smithfield-Selma High School, in Smithfield, North Carolina, organized a school walkout in concert with the nationwide movement to protest the proposed changes to federal immigration laws, including a change that would make it a criminal offense to assist an illegal immigrant. The students walked out of school in the middle of the day and marched to the courthouse, displaying signs expressing their views. The students left the campus between classes, did not disrupt activities at school, and missed two class periods, according to law- school officials. The principal of the school stated that he told the students not to leave, but that they did so anyway. As a result, he issued ten-day suspensions for all of them. One student initially came forward wanting to challenge the legality of the suspensions. The clinic wrote the principal, alleging that the suspension had violated the student's constitutional rights. In response, the principal allowed the student to return to school. Hearing of that student's success, a second student came forward to ask for legal representation. At that point, the clinic and the justice center began preparing a lawsuit alleging due-process and First Amendment violations. Upon being threatened with the lawsuit, the school officials agreed to end the suspensions of all thirty students who had been affected.

"I found the decision to suspend the students for that length of time truly ironic," says Jane Wettach, director of the law clinic. "In tenth-grade civics, the students are supposed to learn about the roles that citizens can take in promoting or inhibiting change through political action and participate in civic life, politics, and government. For the students to be severely punished for doing exactly that is not only shortsighted but counterproductive. In my view, the school missed a golden teaching moment."