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Law Update: Judge Upholds Mandatory Uniforms at Phoenix School

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A Phoenix middle school's mandatory-uniform policy does not violate students' First Amendment rights to free expression, even if the policy does not give students the option of not wearing uniforms, an Arizona state judge has ruled.

Lawyers for Phoenix Elementary School District 1 said they believe the recent ruling by Judge Michael D. Jones of Maricopa County Superior Court was the first in the nation to uphold a school-uniform policy with no opt-out provision.

"It's a very important victory for school districts," said Mary Ellen Simonson, a lawyer for the district. Mandatory uniforms "are a small reform with a lot of big advantages," she said.

At issue in the case was the uniform policy at the Phoenix Preparatory Academy, a public middle school where the 1,300 7th- and 8th-grade students must wear white collared shirts and blue slacks, shorts, or skirts. Two families challenged the policy in a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The students, Analicia Ortiz and Dustin Green, wore T-shirts with religious and patriotic messages to protest the policy and have been barred from the school.

In a brief opinion after the Oct. 26 trial, Judge Jones ruled that the school district acted reasonably by adopting the uniform policy for the middle school. The district had legitimate goals of eliminating gang-related clothing and placing students of varying socioeconomic levels "on an even footing in regard to their appearances" to promote a more effective climate for learning, the judge said.

"It is not for this court to second-guess the decision of the school board as to whether a parental opt-out policy is more reasonable than the mandatory-uniform policy," Judge Jones said in Phoenix Elementary School District No. 1 v. Green.

Students who have lost their athletic eligibility because a learning disability held them back a year or two cannot turn to the Americans With Disabilities ACT or other federal anti-discrimination laws for relief, according to appellate rulings over the past year.

Two federal appeals courts have now overturned trial-court rulings that had found in favor of student athletes based on the ADA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation ACT of 1973.

In the latest case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati, sided with Michigan's athletics governing body against two state students--one from Rochester and the other from Grosse Pointe.

Both boys were retained in grade in their early elementary years because of learning problems. As a result, each had turned 19 before starting his senior year and was ineligible to play sports under association rules.

A three-member panel unanimously determined that the youths' age--and not their impairments--was the basis for barring them from interscholastic competition.

The Sept. 12 ruling in Sandison v. Michigan High School Athletic Association follows a November 1994 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, based in St. Louis, that was decided on similar grounds.

"Courts can't be super school boards," said Edmund Sikorski, the lawyer for the Michigan athletic association. "In the absence of some absolutely invidious discrimination, it's not the judiciary's business to tell a voluntary athletic association how to formulate its rules."

While Mr. Sikorski acknowledged that people are likely to sympathize with individual players barred from competition, he said "the job of the association is to be the guardian of the level playing field."

But Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of law and education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., suggested that school and association officials make such decisions on a case-by-case basis. "If the playing field is to be truly level, why should school districts not have a knowledgeable committee make an individualized determination ... just as they must do in the classroom?" Mr. Zirkel writes in an upcoming issue of Phi Delta Kappan.

A New York City jury has awarded more than $1 million to a woman whose 13-year-old daughter choked to death on a hot dog at school.

The six-member jury in a state trial court found that teachers and a school aide were negligent for not helping Elizabeth Garcia, who was a 7th-grade student at Intermediate School 292 in Brooklyn when she died in 1991.

Lawyers for the girl's mother, Julia Garcia, said that Elizabeth was forced to eat her lunch hurriedly when it was served just minutes before the end of her scheduled lunch period.

While Elizabeth was finishing her hot dog in her next class, a teacher called on her. The girl pointed to her throat in distress because she had begun to choke on the food. The teacher told her to go to the restroom, but the girl found it locked. A school aide then unlocked the door and Elizabeth entered the restroom, but she emerged moments later still choking, according to the lawyers. She collapsed in the hallway. The aide summoned a teacher who knew first aid, but the Heimlich maneuver--an emergency technique used to dislodge an object from the windpipe--was never performed, the lawyers said.

An autopsy confirmed that Elizabeth choked on a piece of hot dog lodged in her throat.

The lawsuit sought $10 million from New York City and the city board of education. Ms. Garcia's lawyers said that a pretrial demand for $250,000 in damages was rejected by the city.

The jury on Oct. 24 awarded Ms. Garcia $2,000 in expenses for her daughter's funeral and $1 million for pain and suffering.

A spokesman for the school board said that city lawyers will decide whether to appeal.

--Mark Walsh & Karen Diegmueller

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