Appeals Court rules against parents in legal dispute with Charlotte private school

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  • The state Court of Appeals has ruled against parents who challenged Charlotte Latin School's expulsion of their children.
  • Doug and Nicole Turpin had claimed that the school retaliated against them after they started questioning changes in the school's operations.
  • The unanimous appellate panel agreed that the Turpins had failed to make a case for “breach of contract, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation, or negligent retention or supervision.”

A unanimous state Court of Appeals panel has ruled against two parents who challenged a Charlotte private school’s decision to expel their children. The parents had claimed the school retaliated against the parents for asking questions about school operations.

The appellate decision Tuesday upheld an October 2022 trial court ruling favoring Charlotte Latin School over parents Doug and Nicole Turpin.

Appellate judges focused on an element of the contractual agreement between Charlotte Latin and its parents. It required a “positive, collaborative working relationship between the School and a student’s parent/guardians.”

“On appeal, plaintiffs contend that they ‘did not make the required “positive, collaborative working relationship” between themselves and Latin “impossible.”’ We disagree,” wrote Judge Carolyn Thompson.

“Here, the allegations of the complaint make clear that a ‘positive, collaborative working relationship between the School’ and plaintiffs was ‘not capable of being accomplished,’” Thompson added “Indeed, the animosity between plaintiffs and defendants can be observed in just the second paragraph of plaintiffs’ complaint, wherein plaintiffs assert that the school’s actions were an example of ‘what has come to be known in American society as “cancel culture.”’

“Moreover, plaintiffs devote an entire section of their complaint titled ‘Latin’s Adoption of a Political Agenda’ to chronicle events that plaintiffs felt were indicative of Latin ‘moving toward a curriculum, culture, and focus associated with a political agenda,’” Thompson wrote “Plaintiffs then devote two additional pages of their complaint to assail Latin’s ‘political agenda’ and note that they ultimately ‘request[ed] the opportunity to meet with the Board … in hopes of beginning a dialogue about the need for better transparency with parents regarding curriculum and the need for consistency with Latin’s Mission and Core Values, as well as Latin’s promise of a traditional and apolitical education.’”

The contract between the school and parents did not allow “plaintiffs to continuously assail the culture and curriculum of the school, with which they no longer agreed,” Thompson explained.

Thompson and fellow Judges John Arrowood and Julee Flood rejected the Turpins’ claims of “breach of contract, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation, or negligent retention or supervision.”

As an unpublished opinion, the case has limited value as a precedent for future disputes.

The Turpins alleged that Charlotte Latin “hatched a plan” to expel their children after the parents started asking questions about changes in the school’s operations.

The Turpins originally filed suit in April 2022. A trial judge dismissed all but one claim in October 2022. The Turpins later dropped that remaining claim as they pursued their appeal.

“Being a parent isn’t easy. Parents have a right — or, at the very least, a need — to understand what their children are exposed to, whether by their friends, the media, or their teachers,” according to a brief the Turpins’ lawyers filed in August. “This is a case about two parents needing an answer to that question.”

“Yet when they asked, Charlotte Latin School and its administrators, Chuck Baldecchi and Todd Ballaban, shut them down,” the brief continued. “In just over two weeks, the Turpins went from valued community members, invited to speak to Latin’s board of trustees, to pariahs whose children were expelled.”

“Latin expelled the Turpin children …  to make examples out of the Turpin family,” the parents argued. “The Turpins’ valid concerns irked the school’s administration. When Latin’s administrators got the chance, they hatched a plan to expel the Turpins’ children. … [T]his Court should reverse the trial court’s decision dismissing the complaint.”

During oral arguments in October, the lawyer for the Turpins, Chris Edwards of the law firm Ward and Smith, argued that the school unfairly targeted the family for expulsion.

“This is a business, not a public school,” Edwards said. “It may be a nonprofit business, but this is a business, not a public school. So, the Turpins are the school’s consumers, and it has an obligation to deal with them in good faith.”

In contrast, attorney Jennifer Van Zant of the Greensboro firm Brooks and Pierce, representing Charlotte Latin, argued that the school was well within its rights to end its relationship with the family. Van Zant emphasized that, in the school’s view, the students were not “expelled,” but the contract was simply ended.

“The very point of private education — whether it be a religious, classical, progressive, Montessori, experiential — is that schools can set a curriculum and policies and then parents can choose schools that match their personal ideologies,” Van Zant said. “Affirming the trial court’s order will affirm that in North Carolina, a private school may set its own course and may preserve a contractual right to separate from parents who want their children educated differently.”

Previously, the school characterized the suit as a challenge to its “diversity, equity, and inclusion” measures.

The NC Association of Independent Schools and Southern Association of Independent Schools filed briefs with the state’s second-highest court. The two groups supported Charlotte Latin’s case.

In a video interview with Carolina Journal, Turpin said that he and his wife were looking for a classical education for their children. They thought that would be achieved at Charlotte Latin. But the school took a turn toward progressivism after the George Floyd riots in 2020.

“All of a sudden they started sending out all kinds of very puzzling emails that sounded like virtue signaling,” Turpin said. “Then strange things began to appear in the school that were rather alarming to Christian parents like us.”

One of those was a picture hung in the hallway of the school depicting Jesus with his throat cut and black blood coming down his shirt, with the words “God is dead” on the forehead, according to Turpin.

The negative experience inspired Turpin to found a group called the Coalition for Liberty, which seeks to establish new classical model schools that are apolitical, among other objectives.