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Md. District Discriminated Against Former Superintendent, Jury Finds

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A jury in a federal court has awarded more than $500,000 to the former superintendent of a rural Maryland school district after it found that his contract was not renewed because of racial discrimination.

H. DeWayne Whittington lost his position as chief of the 3,200-student Somerset County district in 1992. He sued the school district and three of its five board members under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that he lost his job because he is black.

Mr. Whittington, a native of the county on Maryland's Eastern Shore, began working for the district as a custodian in the 1940s. He rose to the position of assistant superintendent in 1981 and was named superintendent in 1988.

A jury in federal district court in Baltimore on June 27 awarded Mr. Whittington more than $480,000 for lost salary and emotional distress. In addition, the jury decided that two board members should be assessed $40,000 each in punitive damages. A third board member was cleared of liability.

In a short written statement added to their verdict form, jurors recommended that the two board members attend racial-sensitivity training and that a county school be named for Mr. Whittington because of his "lifetime achievements in education."

Leslie Stellman, the lawyer for the school district, said the jury "acted on pure emotion." Board members had philosophical differences with Mr. Whittington, not racial animosity, he said.

The trial court judge will be asked to set aside the verdict, Mr. Stellman said late last month. If the judge refuses, the district plans to appeal.

A school district in New York state must provide a mentally retarded student with special education services in a religious school, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. Constitution does not prohibit the Watervliet district from providing a consultant teacher and a teacher's aide for a retarded student whose parents sought to enroll her in a Roman Catholic school, the court found. The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit was unanimous.

The 15-year-old girl's parents say they are able to pay her tuition at St. Brigid's Regional Catholic School in Watervliet, but cannot afford the special services.

The 1,000-student public school district near Albany acknowledged that it would provide those services to a disabled student in a non-religious private school. But lawyers for the district argued that the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion barred it from providing a public special education teacher at the Catholic school.

Both a federal district court and the appeals court disagreed. In its June 12 ruling in Russman v. Sobol, the appeals panel cited a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, which authorized a school district to provide a sign language interpreter for a deaf student who attended a Catholic school. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

The panel said the provision of a consulting teacher and teacher's aide in the Watervliet case met Zobrest's key test that the disabled student's attendance at a religious school stem from a decision by parents, not the government.

And although the special teachers would be providing the disabled student with cognitive services and not just mechanical sign language interpretation, their purpose was still to make material intelligible to the student, not to "advance a particular religious message," the court said.

On another issue, the court rejected the district's arguments that it was not required under federal special education law to provide the additional help in the private school of the parents' choice.

The panel said that in this case, the district made no claim that providing the extra teachers at St. Brigid's would be significantly more expensive than providing the services in a public school.

The student, Colleen Russman, has remained in public schools during the litigation, said Nancy M. Maurer, the family's lawyer, and it was uncertain last week whether she would enroll in St. Brigid's this fall.

The district and the state education department have asked the full 2nd Circuit court to re-examine the case.

Three federal appeals courts have now reviewed school district community-service requirements, and all three have rejected challenges from students or parents.

In the latest case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City, N.C., district's requirement that high school students complete 50 hours of community service before graduation.

Several students and parents challenged the requirement, arguing that it interfered with the parents' rights to direct their children's upbringing and with the students' right to due process of law. In a unanimous July 11 ruling, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit rejected those arguments.

The judges also rejected the argument that the requirement violated the 13th Amendment's ban on involuntary servitude--adopted to end slavery. "The community-service requirement is in no way comparable to the horrible injustice of human slavery," the court said in its opinion in Herndon v. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Board of Education.

Both the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 2nd and 3rd Circuits have also rejected 13th Amendment challenges to service requirements. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the 3rd Circuit's ruling, while an appeal of the 2nd Circuit ruling is pending at the high court.

Scott G. Bullock, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal organization that organized the challenge to the North Carolina district's service requirement, said the panel's ruling would be appealed to the full 4th Circuit court and, if necessary, to the Supreme Court.

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