NC Supreme Court Rules For NCAJ-Supported Plaintiff In Deminski v. State Board of Education

June 16, 2021   |   Maria Perry

Supreme Court affirms right to bring claims against local school board for failure to “guard and maintain” the constitutional right to access a sound basic education.

The plaintiff in Deminski v. State Bd. of Education brought Corum claims asserting that the Pitt County School Board’s deliberate indifference to severe and pervasive emotional and sexual harassment suffered by her children at school culminated in a denial of their right to access a sound basic education guaranteed under the North Carolina Constitution. The school board moved to dismiss the case on grounds sovereign immunity barred plaintiffs’ constitutional claim. The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant immediately appealed. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals acknowledged the interlocutory appeal was appropriate because it concerned the sovereign immunity defense. The majority then reversed the trial court, holding that the constitutional right to education required only that school districts make educational curriculums broadly available. The court ruled that because the claims arose from an abusive or hostile classroom environment not from the educational curriculum, plaintiff failed to bring a recognizable constitutional claim.

In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Newby, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, holding that Ms. Deminski stated a colorable constitutional claim that the school board’s “deliberate indifference to ongoing harassment in the classroom” prevented her children from accessing their right to a sound basic education. The Court specifically noted that

the right to a sound basic education rings hollow if the structural right exists but in a setting that is so intimidating and threatening to students that they lack a meaningful opportunity to learn. Despite the fact that plaintiff-students here were provided with a public school to attend, plaintiff alleges that defendant was deliberately indifferent to conduct that prevented plaintiff-students from accessing  their constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound basic education. . . . Thus, plaintiff’s allegations directly impact the “nature, extent, and quality of the educational opportunities made available” to plaintiff-students as well as indicate that the government failed to “guard and maintain that right.”

This case is an important victory that reaffirms sovereign immunity is not a defense to Corum claims brought directly under the state constitution. Further, Deminski buoys the Supreme Court’s 2009 opinion in Craig v. New Hanover County Board of Education (which landmark case was led by NCAJ’s own Burton Craige) by unequivocally recognizing a student’s constitutional right to access a sound basic education, and that a student’s access right can be violated where a local school board shows deliberate indifference to ongoing student harassment.

Maria Perry, Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin drafted NCAJ’s amicus brief, and  Chris Nichols, Joe Tunstall, and Mark Dorosin participated in a moot argument for the primary attorneys from Fox Rothschild. Thanks to the other amici who contributed to this case, ACLU-NC and Disability Rights NC.

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Maria Perry