The Right to Education Project (REP) is the statewide education justice project of Legal Aid of North Carolina that fights for students in the public education system to get access to the quality education they have a right to, and to end the school to prison pipeline.
How We Work
REP works through three main pathways to achieve greater education justice for students in North Carolina public schools.
One-on-one advice, support, and/or legal representation for students and parents
Presentations, trainings, and publications on students’ and parents’ rights related to education and public school
Advocacy in support of and in partnership with community groups & youth justice advocates to build parent and student power
REP works to protect North Carolina public school students, including those in charter schools, who are experiencing the following forms of school push out:
Enrollment & Access
Denials of educational access, including situations where students are denied enrollment, and/or timely, appropriate access to a sound basic education. This can include a school environment that prevents a student from being able to learn.
Suspension, Expulsion, & Alternative School Placements
Direct school push-out by exclusionary discipline, including situations where students face unlawful and/or excessive out-of-school suspension, expulsion, or punitive placement in an alternative school or program.
Special Education & Disability-related Needs
Indirect school push-out as a result of a school’s failure to address a student’s disability-related needs, including situations where a student with a disability isn’t being given needed services and/or is excluded from the school environment or their non-disabled peers.
Discrimination & Harassment
Indirect school push-out as a result of a school’s maintenance of a hostile environment, including situations where a school creates and/or fails to take steps to address a discriminatory hostile environment.
Staff Social Worker
Hetali Lodaya (EJW Fellow)
Education Resource Specialist
If you are seeking DIRECT LEGAL ADVOCACY, contact the Legal Aid NC Helpline:
DAVIDSON COUNTY – Our Right to Education Project filed a federal complaint today with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of a 14-year-old Black student and her family against Davidson County Schools (DCS). The complaint highlights a pervasive pattern of racial discrimination and harassment experienced by the student while attending Oak Grove High School during the 2021-2022 school year.
“I moved my family to Davidson County with the hopes of giving my children a better quality of life,” D’Shean Smith, the parent of the student named in the complaint, said. “Unfortunately, our relocation has been a living nightmare due to the discrimination and unfair treatment my oldest daughter experienced at Oak Grove. I am still in disbelief by some of the things my daughter experienced at school simply because of the color of her skin.”
The incidents of racial harassment and discrimination span over the course of three months, and include, but are not limited to:
- Failing to discipline a group of white students for openly discussing pronunciation of the word “n*gger” in our client’s presence and then calling her “a n*gger”;
- Punishing our client for going to the bathroom without permission while menstruating, while not punishing a white student who accompanied her;
- Further punishing our client for expressing frustration about the incident; and
- Failing to aid our client or allow her to call her mother while she suffered an extended anxiety attack caused by the discriminatory treatment.
“In a school district with so few Black students, administrators, and teachers, Black students must feel safe and supported at school,” said Crystal S. Ingram, staff attorney for our Right to Education Project who filed the complaint on the student’s behalf. “Students’ reports of racial discrimination must be taken seriously and investigated. When school leaders fail to properly investigate the reports of Black students, they thereby fail to effectively address and eliminate racism in schools. This results in maintaining a hostile and toxic school environment created by the misconduct of white students and teachers at the expense of the mental well-being of Black students.”
Taken as a whole, these incidents of racial harassment and discrimination amount to a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits the exclusion from participation in, being denied the benefits of, or otherwise being subjected to discrimination on the ground of race, color or national origin under any program or activity that receives Federal funds. The complaint further alleges violations of our client’s rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The pervasive pattern of racial harassment and discrimination against our client greatly exacerbated her pre-existing and well-documented depressive and anxiety disorders. Her self-confidence decreased, she experienced physical pain in her stomach, and she consciously avoided interactions with her teachers. Our client’s experiences at Oak Grove High School reduced her desire to attend school, resulting in her switching from in-person instruction to virtual learning for the remainder of the school year.
The following remedies are sought on behalf of the student:
- A comprehensive investigation by the Office for Civil Rights of all the incidents documented in the complaint;
- Appropriate and timely discipline of all DCS administrators, faculty and staff members who violated the student’s rights, DCS policies and expectations of employee conduct;
- Training of school administrators, personnel and students on racial and national origin discrimination, and serving students with mental health disorders;
- Payment of costs associated with therapeutic counseling, the student’s transfer to another school system, and a program to address the trauma and social harms she experienced due to the discrimination; and
- Recalculation of certain grades.
“There is no acceptable excuse for our Black kids to experience the racism that this young queen had to face,” said Frankie Gist, community activist and founder of Hope Dealers Outreach. “Something must and will be done. The Davidson County School System and Oak Grove High School failed her. As a community, we cannot sit back and allow what they did to her to be swept under the rug. If we sit back, we fail her as well. My team at Hope Dealers Outreach and I stand with her. Her life matters!”
The pattern of pervasive discrimination and the tolerance of a racially hostile environment described above is endemic to DCS. They are no stranger to local, state-wide, or national attention on matters of racial conflict.
In 2018, the Winston-Salem Journal reported on a brawl that broke out during a high school football game when a white player from the predominately white South Davidson High School was tackled by a Black player from a neighboring predominately Black high school. The brawl started after the tackle when the white student called the Black student the “n-word.”
In 2019, South Davidson High School made national news in The Washington Post when a white student painted “Kill N*ggers!” on the school’s “spirit rock” and a group of students recorded a video of themselves with the phrase clearly visible to its viewers.
At Oak Grove High School, Black students make up just 4% of the student body, and the percentage of Black girls is merely 2%. According to the school’s statistical profile for 2022, the student named in the complaint was one of 17 Black girls in the school’s student body of 895 students.
“I was treated unfairly at Oak Grove compared to white students on so many occasions,” the student named in the complaint stated. “At this predominately white high school, the racial discrimination and daily challenges I faced made me feel isolated and unfit, but I know that what happened to me does not define me or my future.”
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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Learn more at legalaidnc.org.
Our statewide Right to Education Project (REP) focuses on protecting the rights of children in public schools. REP cases involve student discipline, alternative schools, enrollment, discrimination, school security personnel, special education, bullying and academic failure. Learn more at legalaidnc.org/rep.
Helen Hobson, Public Relations Associate, firstname.lastname@example.org