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Law Group Plays Name Game To Signal New Course

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New Orleans

Hundreds of lawyers, academics, and administrators arrived here as members of the National Organization on Legal Problems in Education and left as members of the Education Law Association.

The name change, and the group's switch to a new home in Dayton, Ohio, are part of the 42-year-old organization's efforts to rejuvenate itself and move in new directions.

The old name "was long and a real mouthful," said Perry A. Zirkel, the outgoing president of the group and a professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "We needed something that conveyed more quickly our focus."

The 1,620-member group's concentration on issues of school law draws the interests of three distinct groups. Academics, particularly education professors who specialize in educational administration and law, make up about 40 percent of its members. Another 40 percent are lawyers, including school district attorneys as well as a few who are likely to be on the other side of school cases, such as civil rights experts.

Most of the rest are administrators, from superintendents to assistant principals, for whom legal issues are practical, everyday concerns.

Other professional organizations also address school law issues. For example, far more district lawyers belong to the Council of School Attorneys of the National School Boards Association.

The advantage of the Education Law Association, Mr. Zirkel said, is that "we are able to offer multiple perspectives on legal issues."

The organization is scheduled to move next month from its current home in Topeka, Kan., to the University of Dayton.

The Nov. 21-23 convention drew more than 350 members to discuss developments in education law, from affirmative action to special education.

One topic that drew a lot of interest was the spate of recent cases that seek to hold public school officials responsible for sexual harassment of students by other students, including the harassment of gay students.

In the same week as the meeting, a federal jury found three administrators of a Wisconsin school district liable for harassment of a gay student. The Ashland district settled the case for nearly $1 million before the jury reached a decision on damages. ("Gay Student To Get Nearly $1 Million in Settlement," Nov. 27, 1996.)

Meanwhile, a federal jury in New York state ruled against a former student in the South Kortright Central school district in a lawsuit alleging that district officials failed to stem peer sexual harassment when the girl was in 6th grade. (See "District Not Liable for Harassment of Student by Peers, Court Rules," This Week's News.)

There are mixed messages, however, in recent rulings about school liability for sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sexual discrimination in schools receiving federal funds.

"School districts are just going nuts right now about what they are supposed to do," said David P. Thompson, an assistant professor of educational administration at Texas A&M University-Commerce. "They are in desperate need for some guidance."

The U.S. Supreme Court this fall declined to accept a case involving peer sexual harassment. That has left lower courts wrestling with the question of whether schools can be held liable for sexual harassment of other students in the same way businesses can be liable for allowing a hostile work environment .

Mr. Thompson urged school officials to take action when faced with complaints about sexual harassment by other students. "I think we have a moral and ethical obligation to do something," he said.

U.S. Senior Circuit Judge Thomas M. Reavley may not be well-known to educators by name, but he is the author of one of the most widely debated decisions on school graduation prayer in recent years.

Judge Reavley, who is now semi-retired from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, discussed in a speech here his 1992 opinion that authorized student-led graduation prayers in a Texas school district.

The ruling in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, which was hailed by religious conservatives nationwide, allowed graduation prayers as long as students voted to allow them and the prayers were nonsectarian and delivered by a student.

"I said that with all those circumstances, nobody would think that the school endorsed the prayer," Judge Reavley said.

Other federal courts have ruled that similar student-led graduation prayers violate the First Amendment.

"My contributions to the law have not been received well by scholars or other judges," Judge Reavley acknowledged.

The judge said most school officials have overreacted when faced with any form of religious expression by students. Religious values should be at the foundation of character programs in schools, he said.

"The critical issue is what is happening to the hearts and minds of our children," the judge said. "Religious thought should be included in the education of the young."


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