Case focuses on decision over school, child’s best interests

Updated December 26, 2017 - 9:35 pm

A Las Vegas family court judge should have been more thorough when considering the best school for a child wrapped up in her parent’s divorce, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In a nine-page decision, the high court listed 10 bullet points for District Court judges to consider when determining where to send a child to school.

“The school that accords with the child’s best interest does not necessarily mean the most expensive or the highest ranked school,” Justice Lidia Stiglich wrote in the court’s unanimous decision. “It means the school best tailored to the needs of the particular child.”

During September arguments in the case, members of the court expressed frustration over the lack of a record in which Melissa Arcella wanted her 12-year-old daughter, identified in court documents as RA, to attend public school, while the girl’s father, Matthew Arcella, wanted her to attend Faith Lutheran, a private religious school.

Clark County Family Court Judge Lisa Brown initially ruled that it was in the child’s best interests to attend both schools, but that was not feasible.

An evidentiary hearing at the Family Court level could have cleared up the questions about what is in the child’s best interests, the Supreme Court decision stated.

“The district court disfavored religion rather than acting neutrally toward it,” Stiglich’s wrote, sending the case back to Brown. “In trying to steer clear of constitutional issues, however, the district court collided head-on with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by disfavoring religion. Rather than a substantive determination of (RA’s) best interests, the district court’s only ‘finding’ amounts to a judicial shrug, which is insufficient to satisfy the district court’s duty to make specific factual findings regarding the child’s best interest.”

Matthew Arcella’s attorney, Bruce Shapiro, said the high court “made the absolute right decision” in its reversal, which set guidelines for future divorce cases to include “the wishes of the child,” “the child’s educational needs” and “the child’s ability to adapt to an unfamiliar environment,” among others.

“Determining which school placement is in the best interest of a child is a broad-ranging and highly fact-specific inquiry,” the decision stated, “so a court should consider any other factors presented by the particular dispute, and it should use its discretion to decide how much weight to afford each factor.”

Las Vegas attorney F. Peter James, representing Melissa Arcella, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In September, James said the lower court ruling could have been more complete in its findings.

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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