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Another Lean Year for School Cases Before the Court Predicted

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court opens its new term this week having agreed to hear appeals so far in only two cases of significant interest to educators.

One case, accepted for review just last week, involves the desegregation plan for the Kansas City, Mo., school district. (See related story.) The other involves the constitutionality of a federal law that bars gun possession near schools.

If recent years are any indication, the chances are slim that the Supreme Court will take on many other(See ducation cases.

"Last year was a lean year, and this year looks even leaner," said August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

Last week, the High Court met to consider more than 1,700 appeals that have piled up since last spring, including about 15 education cases. The Court was to announce by early this week whether it would review any of the following issues:

  • Whether a New Jersey school district violated a student's rights by barring her from her high school graduation ceremony for taking a sip of champagne on the way to the prom. The case is Freedman v. Board of Education of the Borough of Park Ridge (Case No. 94-4).
  • Whether a public school principal can be held liable for a teacher's sexual abuse of a student. Lankford v. Doe (No. 93-1918).
  • Whether a City College of New York department chairman can be disciplined for hateful comments he made about Jews during a speech about New York State's multicultural school curriculum. Harleston v. Jefferies (No. 94-112).
  • Whether Louisiana's high school exit test violates due-process requirements because it does not apply to private school students. Rankins v. Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (No. 94-119).
  • Whether the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 bars Puerto Rico from imposing licensing rules on private religious schools. Association of Christian Academies v. Puerto Rico Department of Education (No. 93-2082).

Wanted: More Guidance

The High Court last term ruled on two cases involving school districts--a special-education dispute and an establishment-of-religion case involving a school district for a community of Hasidic Jews.

Some legal experts argue that the Court is shirking its responsibility to decide education issues that are creating uncertainty and turmoil across the nation. Cases involving religion are the examples cited most often, as school administrators are threatened with suits from all sides over such issues as graduation prayers.

But educators are also clamoring for more guidance in such areas as special education and school officials' responsibility for student safety.

"There are some very strong issues involved in the question of whether there is a constitutional right of a child to be safe in public school," said Ivan B. Gluckman, the legal counsel of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "If so, what obligation does that dictate to the local school district and its administrators?"

The High Court has previously declined to review several cases involving schools' "duty to protect" students. (See related stories, 1/27/93 and 1/26/94 .)

From Courts to Congres

"We have so much litigation in the area of special education, it would be nice to get some attention" from the Supreme Court, Mr. Gluckman said.

But he noted that school districts have turned to Congress for help on one such issue. Pending legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes a measure allowing for longer suspensions of disabled students who bring weapons to school. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1994.)

Many advocates have clamored for more guidance from the High Court in the raging debate over "voluntary, student-led" prayers.

The Court fueled the confusion by ruling against clergy-led graduation prayers in its 1992 decision in Lee v. Weisman, then declining a year later to review a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District allowing students at a Texas high school to vote on whether to have "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing" graduation prayers led by students. (See Education Week, June 16, 1993.)

There are no cases dealing with "voluntary" student prayers currently pending before the HighCourt. But such a case will probably make its way through the lower courts within a year or two.

Even so, such contentious religious issues are probably one area where the Justices may never really be able to settle matters.

"This is an area where the court has struggled for years and split the difference," said Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas. The Justices "draw distinctions in the middle and the advocates on both sides keep pushing them to the line."

One school-law expert said it is unrealistic to expect the Court to resolve all thorny education issues.

"It's too simplistic to wait for a Supreme Court decision like the Messiah," said Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University.

"Some administrators decry the lack of guidance," Mr. Zirkel said, but "the Court can't win."

"If it comes up with guidance, one side or the other is not going to be happy."

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