Winston-Salem Journal

A Former Student at Central Davidson High and His Parents Are Suing the Davidson County School Over His Three-Day Suspension

May 12, 2024

(Winston-Salem Journal)—16-year-old former student at Central Davidson High School in Lexington and his parents are suing Davidson County school officials for suspending him for three days in April.

School officials took action for what they described as the student making a racially insensitive remark in a classroom, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the former student and Leah and Chad McGhee, his parents, filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

The lawsuit followed Monday night’s meeting of the Davidson County School District Board of Education in which many county residents supported the student and criticized the school board for violating the student’s constitutional rights.

The lawsuit identifies the student as “C.M., a minor,” as a required by federal law regarding civil lawsuits, said Dean McGee, an educational freedom attorney at the Liberty Justice Center.

That organization identified the student as Christian McGhee in its news release about the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants are the Davidson County Board of Education and Eric Anderson, an assistant principal at Central Davidson High School, who suspended the student for three days.

Tabitha Broadway, a spokeswoman for the Davidson County Schools, didn’t respond to a Journal reporter’s email and phone call seeking comment on the lawsuit.

“We are not going to comment on pending litigation,” said Bradley Hunt of Lexington, the Davidson County school board attorney.

The N.C. Association of Educators also declined to comment on the lawsuit, a spokesman said.

The lawsuit described a series of events that led to the legal action.

On April 9, the student sought clarification about the word “aliens” for a vocabulary lesson in his English class. The student asked his teacher, Haley Hill, whether a reference to “aliens” during a class discussion referred to “space aliens or illegal aliens who need green cards.”

Hill responded to the student’s question, saying, “Watch your mouth.”

A Hispanic male student then joked that he was going to kick the student’s ass, the lawsuit said. The student’s English class then proceeded as normal.

Anderson later punished the student for his question with three days of out of school suspension, describing the student’s question as racially insensitive and a racially motivated comment, which disrupted the class, the lawsuit said.

When the student returned to school, he received threats and harassment because of his suspension and the event in Hill’s class, the lawsuit said. On April 29, the student’s parents, Leah and Chad McGhee, withdrew their son from the school and enrolled him in a homeschool program.

The student’s question wasn’t racially motivated or targeted at anyone, including his teacher, the Hispanic student or any of the student’s classmates, the lawsuit said.

The student didn’t intend that “his question would cause substantial disruption to class, nor did he intend to substantially disrupt the school’s educational process or missing by asking Hill a question about an in-class reference to the word, ‘aliens,’” the lawsuit said.

The Liberty Justice Center’s Dean McGee, who is no relation to the plaintiffs, said that his clients have a solid case.

“This is a strong case on free speech grounds and due process grounds,” McGee said Tuesday. “There is no appeal from this suspension despite the obvious impact it can have on his future.”

In a statement, Leah McGhee defended her son.

“I have raised our son to reject racism in all its forms, but it is the school, not Christian, that injected race into this incident,” Leah McGhee said. “It appears that this administration would rather destroy its own reputation and reputation of my son rather than admit they made a mistake.”

The Davidson County School District Board of Education supported Anderson’s decision to suspend Christian McGhee, the lawsuit said.

Davidson County school officials violated Christian McGee’s First and 14th amendment rights with their actions against him, the lawsuit said.

The McGhees want a federal court to order the school board to reverse Christian McGhee’s school suspension, remove the suspension from his record, remove the unexcused absences from his record because of the suspension, remove all references from his record that he used racially motivated language in class and issue a public apology to him, the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs also want the court to award them monetary damages against the school board and Eric Anderson, the assistant principal at Central Davidson High School, the lawsuit said.

J. Wilson Parker, a law professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law, said that rulings in three cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court “have been extremely deferential to school claims of needing to maintain discipline” while recognizing students’ constitutional rights.

“If the meaning of ‘alien’ was clear, and the student asked the question just to get a laugh from his classmates, and then the question almost provoked a fight, the school is on fairly strong ground in asserting its need to maintain discipline in the classroom,” Parker said.

“However, if the context was not clear, the topic had never been discussed in class, and the student asked the question in good faith, then the student who wanted to fight should have been disciplined,” Parker said. “The First Amendment protects speakers against a ‘heckler’s veto.’”