Published Online: May 21, 1997

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Advice of Counsel, Part II

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At Duke law school, she worked part time in the university counsel's office and was recruited to Tharrington Smith upon her graduation in 1982. Assigned to the school law section, she found K-12 school issues just as interesting as higher education. "The practice of law fulfilled my urges for variety and interesting subject matter," she says. "There has never been a boring day."

Today, Majestic's office overlooks a pedestrian mall about two blocks from North Carolina's granite state Capitol building. Forgoing one of Raleigh's handful of office towers, Tharrington Smith's three-story quarters are full of plants, gentle waterfalls, and skylights. A few rubber snakes and lizards are placed strategically within the flora-filled decor.

The firm has 20 lawyers, making it small even for Raleigh. It's best-known partner is Wade M. Smith, a criminal defense lawyer who once represented Jeffrey R. MacDonald, the ex-Green Beret doctor convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and two daughters. The case was made famous by the Joe McGinniss book Fatal Vision.

Recent years have not been kind to the Durham County schools, legally speaking.

About half the firm's lawyers devote all or most of their time to school district clients. Majestic says she has been more or less in charge of the education practice since the death last year of George Rogister, who initiated the firm's involvement in school law and was the first counsel to the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Majestic's caseload is a window on the legal issues school districts face every day. It includes disputes over special education, parents' requests for reassignment of their children to other schools, employment discrimination complaints, and concerns brought up under relatively recent federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

And, although the 86,000-student Wake County and the 29,000-student Durham County districts keep her firm the busiest, the range of regular and one-time clients yields every conceivable school law issue.

Majestic personally attends most school board meetings in Wake and Durham counties. These days, she also spends a lot of her time attending special education hearings, which increasingly can drag on for days or even weeks.

If parents plan to have a lawyer present at special education hearings or student discipline proceedings, then the school district usually likes to have its lawyer there, too, Majestic says. "Parents are even bringing lawyers to [school] reassignment meetings," she adds. All this means that she attends a lot of meetings.

Ruth T. Dowling, an associate who works in the school law section of Tharrington Smith, says Majestic is one of the most thorough lawyers she has worked with.

"She just has every base covered," Dowling says. "In interviews with clients or witnesses, she will think of 10 or 15 questions that just didn't occur to me."

One recent special education hearing lasted a full month, with experts flown in from California to testify on behalf of parents, Majestic says. She is working with other lawyers on proposed changes to the state law that implements the federal special education statute in hopes of making the hearing process less burdensome.

"Right now, we essentially have a full-blown trial at the first hearing" over special education disputes, she says. "It creates these monstrous, expensive cases. I don't even know how the parents handle it."

Recent years have not been kind to the Durham County schools, legally speaking. The district has been sued over its merger of formerly separate city and county school systems, over a student reassignment plan stemming from the merger, and over the discipline of a student who brought a gun to school.

Now, racial tensions are bubbling to the surface in Durham, where school board members recently voted 4-3 along racial lines to hire a white woman as superintendent over another candidate who is black.

Previously, a group of white voters had challenged the merger of the separate Durham city and county school systems. The group failed to stop new school board elections from taking place last year, but still pending are challenges to the merger-related student-assignment plan. The firm has filed a motion in federal court to dismiss the suit, arguing that the white plaintiffs lack legal standing to bring the claim.

Kathryn Meyers, the chairwoman of the Durham County school board, said the board has felt besieged by crises recently and she admits she sometimes wonders whether the school attorney could do more to prevent them. "We really only hear about [problems] when things crash and burn. And then everyone is in reactionary mode, including the attorney," Meyers says.

Majestic admits that she wished she had anticipated Durham's current problem with administrator state certification. "I wish I had discovered it sooner," she said. "It was something I didn't double-check on the administration. ... I wasn't asked to, but I have to think about things like that."

'[Ann L. Majestic] is an excellent advocate. But when she wants to play hardball, she can play hardball.'

Tom Stern
Attorney
Chapel Hill, N.C.

In recent years, the Wake County district has faced lawsuits over a police undercover drug sting in the high schools and the shooting death of a high school student in an afterschool melee in a public park.

The Wake County schools spend about $460,000 a year on legal services, out of a general fund budget of $480 million, says Jim Suratt, the district superintendent. He says Majestic's know-how came in handy in helping draft a waiver form for parents to allow school officials to discuss publicly their children's educational records. The waiver was Suratt's response to parents who run to the media when their children are disciplined in school. Parents usually don't sign it, but that means the district can't be blamed for not talking about the case.

One of the most serious lawsuits against the district stemmed from a 1993 incident in which a high school student was shot after school in a city park. The student, Bryan Greene of Millbrook High School, had gathered with others in a Raleigh park one afternoon to watch what court papers called a "typical teenage fight." However, a bystander who jumped into the fight pulled a gun, firing first into the air, then into the fleeing crowd. Greene was shot in the heart and died at the scene.

His family sued the Wake County schools for wrongful death, arguing that school officials knew or should have known that trouble was brewing.

In court papers, lawyers from Tharrington Smith said the school system had enacted strict policies to deal with school violence, but school officials "cannot prevent students from taking dangerous risks when they are away from school. … Nor can they prevent the kind of unexpected criminal actions which turned a fistfight into a multiple shooting of innocent bystanders."

A Wake County trial judge agreed with the school district and its lawyers and dismissed the wrongful death suit in 1995.

More mundane is the legal work involved in disciplining or terminating teachers and other school employees. North Carolina law does not permit collective bargaining with school districts, but teachers have tenure rights.

Tom Stern, a Chapel Hill, N.C., lawyer who represents the North Carolina Association of Educators, has dealt with Majestic as an adversary for years in employment hearings and related matters.

"She is extremely smart," he says. "She is an excellent advocate. But when she wants to play hardball, she can play hardball."

Stern says there are times when Majestic "just can't be budged from her position." But, he adds, she is usually looking out for the best way to resolve a legal problem for the good of the school system, even if that means giving in a little to the other side. "If there is a solution that can avoid litigation, she is good at figuring it out," Stern says.

Back at the Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Wake County school board, Majestic sits at one end of the horseshoe-shaped board desk in a sleek wood-paneled meeting room.

The board members breeze through their agenda, stopping briefly to ask Majestic a question or two about a new contract for transportation of children in the school system's special education programs. Then, the board goes behind closed doors for an executive session.

Majestic lingers outside for a few minutes to phone her office about the Durham special education lawsuits. She wonders what time she will get home to her husband, Hank, a clinical psychologist, and her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

Suddenly, a school official pops out of the executive session to track her down.

"Excuse me, Ann, but your board could probably use you," he says. "They're onto a hot one."

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