State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle indicated support for a proposed law giving high school students the right to appeal short-term suspensions after a 16-year-old North Carolina student was suspended for three days for using the term “illegal alien” in English class.

Sen. Steve Jarvis, R-Davidson, outlined the proposal to the Committee on Education/Higher Education, referring to the recent situation that spotlighted one-sided school suspensions. 

“Recently, we had an incident occur in my district that brought this to the attention – the issues surrounding short-term suspensions for schools,” said Sen. Jarvis during committee discussion. “The incident resulted in confusion and frustration because there was little information provided regarding the reasons as to why the student was suspended and to which school policy, and how particularly that school policy was violated. This situation highlighted the need to address the policies concerning short-term suspensions, which is the main purpose of this PCS.”

Students currently have the statutory right to appeal any long-term suspension, which is defined as 10 days or longer. However, the same rights and protections are not given to students who receive short-term suspensions, anything less than 10 days. The Proposed Committee Substitute (PCS) would grant students with suspensions of five days or longer the right to appeal to the superintendent. It would mandate that schools accept eyewitness reports from the students or members of school staff regarding incidents that lead to short-term or long-term suspension.

The disparity was recently felt by the McGhee family, in which sophomore Christian McGhee was not able to appeal his suspension, charged as racism, because it was only three days. During the committee meeting, his mother, Leah McGhee, told legislators that true racism should be a top-tier punishment.

“This draft of this bill is more important than you can even imagine,” McGhee said to the committee members. “The absolute hell that our family has been through the past 60 days, I cannot express in words, but I pray that you can hear it through my heart as I speak to you today; pleading that something be done to rectify the problem in our schools dealing with short-term suspension and appeals.”

This week, the law firm representing the McGhee family filed a preliminary injunction to clear Christian’s academic record. They also released  new information about the case that shows a school administrator equating the phrase “illegal alien” to “the n-word.” A lawsuit was filed last month against the Davidson County Board of Education as well.

The proposed bill also includes provisions allowing for the expunction of short-term suspensions from students’ records if specific criteria have been met. As Jarvis noted, the bill is ultimately about upholding due process for students if they believe they were unfairly punished. 

“By supporting this bill, we can ensure that our students are treated fairly and have appropriate avenues to address their concerns, ultimately promoting a more just and supportive education environment,” Jarvis added. 

Two Democratic lawmakers expressed appreciation for the effort, revealing bipartisan support. While the committee did not vote on the bill on Wednesday, it will be addressed again at the next meeting, likely to be held next week.

“I think this is a step in the right direction to address the huge number of suspensions that affect our children,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford. “Especially as you look at the disparity amongst races, and how that is disparagingly affecting their long-term ability to continue to higher education and trade schools or wherever they’re able to go. So I thank you really for addressing this and putting in that expungement piece.”