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Students kicked out of Nature Coast Technical High School over residency have attorney

BROOKSVILLE — An attorney representing two students kicked out of Nature Coast Technical High School because they don't live in Hernando County says the law is on their side.

But he hopes it won't come to a legal battle.

Bruce Snow of Brooksville represents the students who want to return in the fall and whose appeals were denied by the School Board last month.

"Our hope and expectation is that reasonable minds will reach reasonable solutions and we won't have to resort to reasonable courts," Snow said.

Snow sent a letter to the school district last month outlining the legal grounds on which he would build a case if it came to that, however.

One of Snow's legal arguments is that while the school district has a policy forbidding nonresidents from attending magnet schools here, once students are admitted to a school — erroneously or not — they are automatically given certain rights under state statute.

"Those rights particularly include the right to seek public school choices, which would include admission into magnet schools," Snow said.

The School Board violated that right when they voted to deny the requests of eight out-of-county students who appealed to stay at Nature Coast, Snow maintains.

He also notes that the students' constitutional rights to equal protection and due process may have been violated.

Snow declined to provide a copy of the letter or divulge the names of his clients, saying he wanted to consult with them first before giving more information to a reporter.

He said both students would be juniors in the fall. He plans to meet with them today.

Snow said he didn't threaten legal action in the letter.

"That's premature at this point," Snow said. "We would hope this issue would be resolved based on what's basically right, and that's doing right by the students."

Snow said School Board attorney Paul Carland sent "a very respectful, very professional response" and that the two clearly have a different interpretation of the law.

Carland also declined to provide copies of the letters Thursday to the St. Petersburg Times, saying the documents are part of the students' records and therefore subject to confidentiality laws.

The board gave students due process before making a decision based on district policy, Carland said. He says case law supports his assertion that the district is not legally obligated to allow the students to return to Nature Coast.

"Students are not guaranteed a particular seat in a particular classroom in a particular school," he said.

Carland said he'll update the School Board at its regular meeting on July 28.

Snow said he hopes the district will do what's right, but he said that the students and their families already have appealed to the board's sense of fairness, with little positive results.

School officials discovered in March that 19 out-of-county students, most of whom live in Pasco County, were attending the school.

Five of them graduated last month. Ten students filed appeals to stay, including five who would be juniors in the fall. At a June 2 hearing, the board voted to send all the students packing. Angry parents criticized the board for not letting students and their families speak.

At the board's regular meeting that night, board member Pat Fagan said he'd reconsidered his earlier vote, saying the seniors should be allowed to stay.

Two board members, James Yant and John Sweeney, supported a move to allow the juniors to say, too, but that motion failed. In the end, the board voted 3-2 to let the seniors return.

District officials said the addresses should have been confirmed at the time of the application process, and then-principal Margaret "Tizzy" Schoelles has accepted responsibility for some of the students. The district's protocol has since been changed so that addresses now will be checked at the district level. An investigation has been launched at the request of School Board Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield.

Board member Sandra Nicholson, who was adamant that none of the students be allowed to return, said Thursday that she's comfortable with the district's legal footing.

"We have rules, and the board has decided to make some allowances," Nicholson said. "If (the students) want to try that, that's their right as citizen, but I'm not concerned."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Students kicked out of Nature Coast Technical High School over residency have attorney 07/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 9, 2009 9:40pm]
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