We are educators. we represent educators.

Education Law

North Carolina Public School Board and Education Law Attorneys

Tharrington Smith has been a partner to public education in North Carolina for over forty years.  Our attorneys specialize in the unique legal needs of K-12 educational institutions, supporting our clients through the day-to-day challenges of providing public education in a complex legal and political landscape.  We serve as general counsel for numerous North Carolina school systems, offering special expertise on a wide range of issues, including public records and open meetings law, personnel, student services and discipline, civil rights, special education, contracts, public bidding, school funding disputes, school construction and renovation.  In addition, we provide specialized litigation services to public school clients and their insurers across the state, appearing and advocating before state and federal courts and administrative agency tribunals.   With seventeen full-time school attorneys and eight education law paralegals and legal assistants, we are the largest and longest-lasting education law firm in North Carolina. We are committed to providing consistently top-notch legal advice and advocacy and pride ourselves on our expertise, experience, and intimate understanding of the many needs and challenges facing North Carolina public schools.

Brief History of Tharrington Smith, LLP

Tharrington Smith, LLP was founded in 1964 and has enjoyed 56 years of distinction in the practice of law in North Carolina.  Education law is the largest practice area in the firm. Other practice areas include criminal defense, family law, election law, and civil litigation.  Unlike many top-ranked North Carolina firms, Tharrington Smith has consciously resisted the trend of mergers, expansions, and multiple offices in order to maintain the professional atmosphere and close relationship among attorneys and clients for which the firm is known.  We treat clients as people, not “cases.”

The firm’s education law practice began in 1978 with representation of the Wake County Board of Education and the North Carolina School Boards Association.  The firm still represents these two clients and now actively represents dozens of school boards, large and small, urban and rural, across the state.  In addition to its regular client base, Tharrington Smith, LLP has represented approximately one hundred school boards across North Carolina over the years on various special matters and as litigation counsel.  Working for such a large number of boards has exposed the firm’s lawyers to a wide variety of issues and concerns arising in many different settings.  Such experience benefits all clients.

Seventeen attorneys, eight paralegals, and other support staff in the firm work exclusively, or almost exclusively, on education law matters, with several other members of the firm, contributing to litigation defense efforts on behalf of our school board clients.  The school law attorneys at Tharrington Smith have a combined total of over years’ experience representing public school districts in North Carolina.  This extensive experience enables us to draw from and expand upon an already deep understanding and voluminous brief bank on a wide range of legal issues, including but not limited to those addressed in more detail below.  If a school administrator or school board members has a specific legal question, the odds are good that our education attorneys have already researched it in support of other clients over the past 40 years.

One goal of the firm’s education section is to help our clients avoid the cost and disruption of protracted litigation and administrative hearings. For many years, Tharrington Smith has worked closely with school boards and school administrators to develop sound internal grievance procedures, provide in-service legal trainings, and help informally resolve many personnel matters and other actual or potential disputes before litigation is filed. When disputes cannot be avoided or quickly resolved, the firm has successfully represented school boards in hundreds of cases filed in state and federal trial courts, state and federal appellate courts, and administrative tribunal run by the U.S. Equal Opportunities Commission, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Justice, the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings, and other state and federal agencies. The firm is frequently appointed by the North Carolina School Boards Trust and commercial insurance carriers to represent school districts in litigation and has submitted numerous amicus briefs to state appellate courts on behalf of the North Carolina School Boards Association in cases affecting the interests of school boards across the state.

Our education attorneys are active in state and national organizations of school attorneys and work hard to stay abreast of new trends and developments that impact the legal needs and interests of our school district clients. Tharrington Smith attorneys regularly present on a wide variety of education law issues to a wide variety of audiences, including school board members, school administrators, and other school attorneys. Participation in these organizations and activities enhances our lawyers’ knowledge and expertise and has helped us establish positive long-term relationships with officials in organizations such as the Department of Public Instruction, the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, and the UNC School of Government.

One important aspect of the education law section that is not immediately apparent is that a majority of the attorneys in the section have had a longstanding interest in public education and the rights of children. For example, several of our school law attorneys are children or spouses of public school educators or were teachers themselves before they became attorneys, some with Master’s degrees in Education. The education law practice at Tharrington Smith is not just a business endeavor. It is a collection of individuals who share a passion for public education and are committed on a personal as well as a professional level to supporting public education in North Carolina by providing high-quality legal services to school boards and public school educators with the ultimate goal of affording them the best possible opportunity to educate the children of North Carolina.

Tharrington Smith’s depth and breadth of experience in special education law are unparalleled across the state, offering focused skill and insight and guiding school systems to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), Section 504, and North Carolina special education laws and regulations.

At Tharrington Smith, we emphasize prevention of complaints and litigation by providing our clients with customized training, ongoing guidance, and troubleshooting of special education issues.  We support school boards and staff from the creation of Individual Education Programs or 504 plans through meetings with families and dispute resolution.  When conflict is unavoidable between parents of special needs students and school districts, our team represents our clients in administrative hearings and federal litigation.

Among the full scope of legal services we provide, our education lawyers support schools through:

  • Training Presentations (large and small groups)
  • Day-to-Day Consultation & Troubleshooting
  • Compliance Reviews
  • IEP & 504 Meetings
  • Dispute Resolution Between Parents and Districts
  • Responding to and Litigating Due Process Hearing Petitions
  • State Complaints
  • Section 504 Compliance
  • Other Miscellaneous Special Education Matters

Our education lawyers are widely considered leaders in the field of special education law. Passionate about both education and the law, our education lawyers are experienced, responsive, and professional. In addition to special education matters, the education law team at Tharrington Smith provides the full range of legal services to public school boards. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

Our school clients seek to serve the diverse needs of students through innovative programs that include small and alternative schools, online learning, advanced placement courses, support for limited English proficient families, and support for students with behavioral and emotional needs. Boards also must address student conduct and safety in a way that respects the rights of all students to an education and to an orderly and effective learning environment.

The education law section at Tharrington Smith has helped guide school boards through thousands of student-related concerns that arise in the K-12 educational context. As part of this work, our lawyers routinely advise school boards in developing policies and procedures that enable school boards to quickly identify and address these types of concerns. It is the goal of our lawyers to help school boards understand their obligations to students and to consistently and fairly carry out those obligations in compliance with the law.

Our attorneys offer a full spectrum of service and support to school districts throughout North Carolina. Our attorneys’ expertise, guidance, and representation relating to student matters includes:

  • Student Discipline
  • Student/Parent Grievances
  • Student Searches & Seizures
  • Seclusion & Restraint
  • Special Education Issues
  • Student Assignment & School Transfers
  • Homeless Students
  • Child Custody Issues
  • Sexual Harassment & Gender-based
  • Discrimination

  • FERPA & Student Record Confidentiality Issues
  • Discrimination Claims
  • Federal Investigations, including Investigations by the Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education concerning limited English proficient students and families, racially disproportionate discipline, the role of law enforcement in schools, and other matters
  • Other Specific & Miscellaneous Matters

Our education lawyers are widely considered leaders in the field of special education law. Passionate about both education and the law, our education lawyers are experienced, responsive, and professional. In addition to special education matters, the education law team at Tharrington Smith provides the full range of legal services to public school boards. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

The education law team at Tharrington Smith provides representation to public school districts in a wide array of matters relating to employment and personnel in the K-12 educational context. Our attorneys have broad experience in advising school districts on legal issues related to personnel actions, from applicant screening and hiring, contracts, and employee evaluations, to grievances, suspensions and dismissals. When the needs of public school boards and the actions of employees come into conflict, our school district clients rely on the guidance of our experienced education lawyers to protect their interests through every phase of the employment process. For example, we provide ongoing guidance and staff training to ensure compliance with state and federal employment law, help create policies and procedures for fair and efficient personnel management, and defend our clients from all manner of employment-related legal claims, including but not limited to claims of discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful discharge.

Among the full spectrum of legal services provided to public school boards, the personnel practice includes evaluation, guidance and representation in matters relating to:

  • Drafting & Revising Personnel Policies
  • Presentations on Personnel Law
  • Hiring & Background Checks
  • Employment Contracts
  • Monitored Growth Plans
  • Evaluation Procedures
  • Personnel Records
  • Personnel Investigations
  • Dismissal Hearings & Appeals
  • EEOC Complaints
  • Wrongful Termination Claims
  • Reductions in Force
  • Complaints & Grievances
  • Employment Visas & Green Cards
  • The Affordable Care Act

Our lawyers have decades of collective experience representing North Carolina school districts in all areas of education law. Passionate about both education and the law, our education lawyers are experienced, responsive, and professional. In addition to employment and personnel matters, the education law team at Tharrington Smith provides the full range of legal services to public school districts throughout the state. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

Rights guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions are a part of daily school life. School boards and their employees must apply constitutional principles almost daily in addressing student discipline, student and faculty speech, prayer and other issues of religious freedom, searches and seizures, and the due process rights of tenured or contracted employees.

Constitutional cases can arise from vaccination requirements, police dog searches, limitations on advertising at ball fields, drug testing of student athletes, student and staff leave policies, locker searches, e-mail searches, student suspensions, distribution of written materials at school, and many other school activities. Our education lawyers have broad experience assisting public schools in navigating complex constitutional questions, including issues related to student due process, employee due process, desegregation, free speech, freedom of religion, and other matters.  With this experience, we are able to advise school districts on forward-thinking policies and practices to uphold constitutional principles and avoid court fights where possible.  We also provide training on constitutional and other issues to help school staff understand constitutional boundaries.  In addition, we routinely defend lawsuits containing constitutional claims in both State and Federal courts. 

Our lawyers provide guidance regarding the following types of constitutional concerns:

  • Free Speech – Employees
  • Free Speech – Students
  • Free Speech of Outside Individual & Entities
  • Search & Seizure – Employees
  • Search & Seizure – Students
  • Due Process – Employees
  • Due Process – Students
  • Religion in the Public Schools
  • The Equal Access Act
  • Equal Protection under the Law
  • School Desegregation
  • School Uniforms & Dress Codes

Our education lawyers are leaders in the field of education law. Passionate about both education and the law, our education lawyers are experienced, responsive, and professional. In addition to the constitutional law issues described above, the education law team at Tharrington Smith provides a full range of legal services to public school districts and private education facilities. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

Many conflicts and disputes are best settled amicably through creative problem solving and alternative dispute resolution processes like mediation.  However, when remedial efforts are unsuccessful, or when litigation is inevitable and important legal rights are at stake, the education lawyers at Tharrington Smith bring the collaborative power of an entire team of seasoned trial and appellate lawyers to the full array of services we provide to school boards throughout North Carolina.

The kinds of issues that might give rise to litigation are nearly limitless.  Whether the underlying issue relates to an employment matter, a construction defect, special education issues, discrimination allegations, civil rights matters, or arises from administrative and compliance issues, our veteran litigators offer robust legal representation and services involving the following types of matters:

  • Litigation & Trial in State Court
  • Litigation & Trial in Federal Court
  • State Administrative Investigations & Hearings
  • Federal Administrative Investigations & Hearings
  • Mediation
  • Appeals before the North Carolina Court of Appeals & Supreme Court of North Carolina
  • Appeals before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals

The education lawyers at Tharrington Smith bring their independent strengths to provide collaborative representation to school board clients involved in litigation. This team approach allows our attorneys to focus full attention on our clients’ daily needs while providing professional excellence in every litigation matter our clients face. We bring highly focused skill and experience to school boards throughout North Carolina. Passionate about both education and the law, our education lawyers are experienced, efficient and client-oriented. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

Public school systems typically are the largest, or one of the largest, business operations in their home counties.  School districts frequently enter and administer multi-million dollar contracts to build or renovate facilities and to purchase or lease computer equipment or other expensive infrastructure.  They also regularly enter many other, smaller, contracts covering everything from yearbook publishing to highly regulated areas such as special educational services.  Our lawyers have the expertise to guide school districts through the many legal issues associated with the planning, design, and construction of school facilities and to draft, revise, and negotiate contracts to protect school district’s legal interests.  In those unfortunate cases where problems arise in building construction or other contractual relationships, we represent our clients in litigation or other dispute resolution processes to help ensure that our clients’ interests are protected, and their rights are fully afforded.

In contrast with private business, school boards must comply with state law that governs public bidding, purchasing, and the disposition of real and personal property on behalf of public bodies. Our many years of experience in these areas allows us to help our school district clients make efficient business decisions that comply with these legal requirements.

Finally, school system operating budgets are large and complex, with multiple funding sources and varying requirements. We help school boards make sound decisions about revenue sources and spending requirements in federal programs, personnel, instructional programs, and other areas.

The broad spectrum of construction, purchase & finance law services we offer in the educational arena include:

  • North Carolina’s School Budget and Fiscal Control Act
  • Contract Review & Negotiation
  • School Construction Contracts
  • School Construction Law – Legal Updates and Client Counseling
  • School Construction Law – Claims & Litigation
  • Public Bidding Laws and Processes
  • Pre-Audit Requirements
  • Joint Use Agreements on the Shared Use of School System Property
  • Memoranda of Understanding with Government Agencies or Non-Profits
  • Charter School Funding Requirements

Our lawyers are widely considered leaders in the field of education law. We bring highly focused skill and experience to public school districts throughout North Carolina. Passionate about both education and the law, our education lawyers are experienced, responsive, and professional. In addition to the construction, purchase, and finance issues described above, the education law team at Tharrington Smith provides a full range of legal services to school districts and other educational institutions. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

School boards and school districts are among the most highly regulated of entities. School boards, board committees, school improvement teams, and other public bodies must comply with the rules and principles of North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law and Public Records law. The education law attorneys at Tharrington Smith have a broad range of experience in compliance with rules governing open meetings and closed sessions, retention of public records, board meeting minutes, and responses to public records requests, including electronic data and e-mail.  We help school districts navigate these and other issues which have arisen through a changing information landscape that includes electronic communication, cloud computing and records storage, and other topics, including the following:

Parliamentary Procedure / Robert’s Rules of Order

  • North Carolina Public Records Law
  • Records Retention Requirements
  • Electronic Records

We advise and counsel school boards on the effective use of parliamentary procedure as it applies to open meetings, maintenance of traditional and electronic records and compliance with public records rules and retention requirements.  Our goal is to guide school districts toward creating systems that operate on sound legal footing.  We utilize our many years of experience in representing school boards to help clients develop efficient practices and procedures, assist in drafting and revising policy, and seek sound decisions in compliance with the law.

Our lawyers are widely respected leaders in the field of education law. We bring highly focused skill and experience to public school boards throughout North Carolina. Passionate about both education and the law, our attorneys are experienced, responsive, and professional. In addition to representation and advice on the open meetings and public records matters described here, the education law team at Tharrington Smith provides the full range of legal services to school boards and other educational institutions. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

School boards lead their school systems primarily through the formulation of written policies and procedures.  Through their policies, school boards control such matters as curriculum, school calendars, employee benefits, personnel processes, community involvement, board operations, and student and employee conduct.  In addition, state and federal statutes and administrative regulations require school boards to adopt policies on a wide range of subjects, including bullying, equal access to school facilities, accommodations for students and staff with disabilities, confidential safety and security plans for school emergencies, and other matters.

Our many years of experience in representing school boards help us advise our clients on how to comply with these ever-changing legal requirements while promoting local goals with clarity and precision.  In addition, our experience working with federal and state agencies and defending school policies in court gives us a unique perspective on best practices in policy drafting.  Through retainer client memos, staff and board training, and our presence at Board meetings when policy matters are discussed, we help keep our retainer clients abreast of the many legal issues that impact their policies and procedures.

We are experienced, responsive lawyers who are passionate about education. In addition to the policy matters addressed above, the lawyers in our education law section bring highly focused skill and experience to a wide range of legal issues faced by school districts throughout North Carolina. Our lawyers are available to respond to an RFP or consult with you about how we can meet your school board’s legal needs.

Our Team

Tharrington Smith’s education law attorneys combine experience and legal savvy with a passion for education. We maintain a diverse culture of legal skill for the benefit of school board clients throughout North Carolina. In addition to student matters, the education law team at Tharrington Smith provides a full range of legal services to public school boards throughout the state. We are available to respond to your RFP and answer your school board’s legal support needs.