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Before you suspend me, can I call a lawyer?

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With the principal as the prosecutor and six teachers as the jury, the scene was a little like "Law and Order" meets "Boston Public."

Facing sexual-harassment allegations in this "quasi-judicial" setting, Nic Roberts, then a high school junior, says a key player was missing: his own lawyer.

Eventually punished for a suggestive comment and gesture when he and his classmates were paired off to play Scrabble, Roberts, an ROTC member, left his Asheville, N.C., high school after a long-term suspension and finished at a military school.

Mr. Roberts is now in his mid-20s, married, and taking college classes. He's also the central figure in a North Carolina Supreme Court case. At issue: whether his right to due process under the Constitution's 14th Amendment was violated when his lawyer was forced to sit in the hall during the school disciplinary hearing.

As zero-tolerance policies have multiplied, high school and even college careers have been on the line for students across the country.

The North Carolina decision, expected this spring, will become part of a growing body of case law that explores issues ranging from students' constitutional rights to the question of whether errant teens should be provided with public defenders if they can't afford a lawyer.

"Other jurisdictions are going to be looking at this decision to try to decide which way they should be going," says Asheville attorney Paul Bidwell, who represents Roberts.

Today, a classroom crime has far more ability to darken a student's future than a decade ago, experts say. And while most schools try to do right by all their students, the emerging debate over the role of lawyers indicates a new reality in school discipline.


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