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CHOCOWINITY, N.C. — As school let out one day in January 2008, students from rival towns faced off. Two girls flailed away for several seconds and clusters of boys pummeled each other until teachers pulled them apart.

The fistfights at Southside High School involved no weapons and no serious injuries, and in some ways seemed as old-fashioned as the country roads here in eastern North Carolina. But the punishment was strictly up-to-date: Sheriffs’ deputies handcuffed and briefly arrested a dozen students. The school suspended seven of them for a short period and six others from the melee, including the two girls, for the entire semester.

As extra punishment, the girls were told they could not attend Beaufort County’s alternative school for troubled students and were denied aid to study at home.

Their punishment was typical of the get-tough, “zero tolerance” discipline policies that swept the nation over the last two decades, resulting in an increase in suspensions that are disproportionate among black students. School officials here say they acted to preserve a “safe and orderly environment.”

But whether banishing children from schools really makes them safer or serves the community well is increasingly questioned by social scientists and educators. And now the punishment is before the courts in what has become a stark legal test of the approach. Lawyers for the girls — who are black — say that denying them a semester’s schooling was an unjustified violation of their constitutional right to an education.

The case will be argued on Monday in the North Carolina Supreme Court and has drawn the attention of civil rights, legal aid and education groups around the country.

At issue is the routine use of suspensions not just for weapons or drugs but also for profanity, defiant behavior, pushing matches and other acts that used to be handled with a visit to the principal’s office or detention. Such lesser violations now account for most of the 3.3 million annual suspensions of public school students. That total includes a sharp racial imbalance: poor black students are suspended at three times the rate of whites, a disparity not fully explained by differences in income or behavior.

On March 8, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan lamented “schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys” as he pledged stronger efforts to ensure racial equality in schooling.

A growing body of research, scholars say, suggests that heavy use of suspensions does less to pacify schools than to push already troubled students toward academic failure and dropping out — and sometimes into what critics have called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”