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Before you suspend me, can I call a lawyer?

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"Students all across the country are facing grave consequences - being kicked out, having their entire futures jeopardized - from what happens in school disciplinary hearings," says Alex Koroknay-Palicz, the president of the National Youth Rights Association in Washington. "They need all the constitutional protection they can get."

If the judges rule in Roberts's favor, it will be the first time a state high court has affirmed a student's right to have a lawyer at a disciplinary hearing. In 2001, the Indiana Supreme Court struck down a similar case on the basis that having lawyers at every hearing would create an undue "fiscal burden" on school districts. And a ruling in a 1986 Missouri case found that a hearing for sexual harassment had met the minimum burden for due process - even though the student did not have a lawyer present.

About half the states already allow lawyers at disciplinary hearings. But school districts find that their presence sometimes gums up an already overburdened bureaucracy.

"We recently had one student who came to a suspension hearing with a lawyer, two court reporters, and an entourage of witnesses," says Ann Majestic, a Raleigh attorney who represents school districts.

Lawyers have no place in suspension hearings, some school officials say, because these are designed to get to the truth of what happened informally - and to take into account the interest of the entire school.

"It's a bad idea to have attorneys involved at these early hearings," says Allan Root, a lawyer for the Buncombe County schools in Asheville. In most districts, including Buncombe, lawyers are allowed at appeals hearings.

Even many lawyers agree that it would be best if schools were lawyer-free zones. But new zero- tolerance rules have changed the situation so much that lawyers are now becoming a necessity, some experts say.

Instead of suspension hearings being altruistic interventions, new standards for students' behavior have intensified proceedings and created "extraordinarily adversarial" situations, Mr. Bidwell says.

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