Board attorney responds
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 28, 2008
WINDSOR – As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Bertie Board of Education (BOE) attorney Carolyn Waller presented that second side regarding the incident that occurred in Bertie County court last week.
On that day, May 21, District Court Judge W. Rob Lewis subpoenaed 10 school officials to appear in his courtroom and then proceeded to publicly berate them for their alleged responsibility in clogging up the court system with unnecessary juvenile cases.
Lewis reportedly further told the summoned group – which included all five BOE members and the superintendent of Bertie County Schools – that he would continue to subpoena them every time a case came up on his docket involving students misbehaving at Bertie High School.
&uot;The board’s primary concern right now is a repeat, the potential of being summoned again through the subpoena process… that’s something they want to avoid.
We have concerns over Judge Lewis using the subpoena process in this manner,&uot; Waller told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald.
Lewis issued 16 subpoenas to each of the 10 school officials, one to every person for each of the 16 youth allegedly involved in what was said to be a gang-related altercation at Bertie High School.
&uot;The point of the subpoena was to ask each person to testify and give witness relating to the separate cases, which was related to an incident that took place at Bertie High School.
In that instance, charges were filed by the sheriff and pursued by the DA (District Attorney),&uot; Waller noted.
She continued, &uot;But he did not call them as witnesses, nor really could he have because most, if not all, of these people had no information that would have been relevant.&uot;
Waller also stated that another concern of the board regarding being subpoenaed was the presence of so many high-ranking school officials in the courtroom at the same time.
&uot;He (Lewis) subpoenaed to court, at the same time, the two principals at the high school, the superintendent and the assistant superintendent, in addition to the SRO’s (School Resource Officers) from Bertie… so there were no administrators at the high school and the superintendent and assistant superintendent were unavailable.
There are no cell phones allowed in the courtroom and at the time EOG’s (End of Grade testing) were going on so if something had happened and there had been an emergency there would be no one there (at the high school) to manage it,&uot; she explained.
In his remarks to the subpoenaed school officials, Judge Lewis expressed concerns regarding the school administration’s supposed lack of policy for dealing with school disciplinary issues that arise with students within the school system.
&uot;Another concern is whether a subpoena is the appropriate method of addressing concerns the judge might have.
I’m not sure what policy he is objecting to, as the board has complete authority to set their own policies,&uot; Waller stated.
She added, &uot;This is quite unusual.
My firm represents school boards all over the state and I’ve never heard of this strategy being used in an attempt to change a policy in this manner.&uot;
According to Waller, school officials have concerns as to the appropriateness of Judge Lewis’ action.
&uot;The board has concerns as to whether or not this has merit… there is an avenue for the judge to issue subpoenas, but in these circumstances the board has asked me to look into whether or not they were meritorious,&uot; Waller noted.
She continued, &uot;Another concern is that he (Lewis) called them into another chamber aside from where court was taking place and said that he would continue to issue subpoenas until he was satisfied the concerns were met as to a change in policy.
At this point we’re trying to gather more information to find out exactly what his concerns are.&uot;
Waller further remarked that charges being brought against students in the school system is not the responsibility of the school administrators.
&uot;To the extent that cases are brought (to court), the DA has the authority to dismiss any action, so to the extent that there are lots of cases going before any particular court, the DA makes the decision to bring those cases and has the ability to dismiss any case in which charges are brought,&uot; she noted.
Waller added, &uot;Once the charges are brought in a decision by the sheriff, the DA has the authority to determine whether they’re going to dismiss those charges… not the school board.
I don’t know why the charges are brought and I don’t know statistics as compared to other counties but we can certainly find that out and we will be looking into that.&uot;
Several court officials have also reportedly questioned whether a judge should have the authority to subpoena elected officials and school administrators to court for the purpose of a lecture.
The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald will have more on this story as it continues to develop.